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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Symphony #4 in f, Op 36 (1877) [42.39]
Symphony #5 in e, Op 64 (1888) [49.26]
Symphony #6 in b, "Pathétique" Op 74 (1893) [45.48]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded at Jesus-Kristus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, 21 September 1971.
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français.
EMI 3817982 [ADD] [73.07 + 64.59]

Comparison recordings
Symphony #4:
Chicago SO/Solti. Decca 430 745 2
Chicago SO/Kubelik. [mono] Mercury Living Presence LP
Baltimore SO/Comissiona. Silverline [ADD] DVD-A 288229 9
RPO/Rodzinski. Westminster [AAD] MCAD2 9829A
VSOO/Scherchen. [mono ADD] Westminster/Urania URN22.248
Russian SO/Valery Polyansky. Chandos CHAN 9608
Symphony #5
LPO/Stokowski. Decca Weekend Classics [ADD] 438 687 2
Oslo PO/Hegge. RCA Victrola LP
LSO/Monteux. Silverline [ADD] DVD-A 288228 9
LSO/Monteux. Vanguard [ADD] OVC 8031/2
RPO/Rodzinski. Westminster/DGG [mono ADD] 471 272 2
St. Petersburg PO/Temirkanov RCA/BMG 82876 65831 2
Symphony #6
Chicago SO/Reiner. RCA/BMG [ADD] 09026 61246 2
LSO/Stokowski RCA/BMG 09026-62602-2 [Dolby surround]
RPO/Rodzinski Westminster/DGG [mono ADD] 471 272 2
BPO/Furtwängler. various issues. [mono ADD]

I have been including these recordings in my reviews as comparisons for some time, but must confess that while I once owned #’s 5 & 6 on "Quadraphonic" LP pressings, I no longer own them and hadn’t heard them in 20 years. I put Quadraphonic in quotes because I am advised that EMI issued a lot of fake (oh, pardon me, I mean of course "enhanced") quad sound on LP’s so these recordings may not be true four channel masters. They appear here in exquisitely detailed two channel versions which decode convincingly in my four channel player yielding an open orchestral perspective, but not much hall ambiance. Upon reacquaintance, #’s 5 and 6 are still brilliant and exciting in places, perhaps just a little too slow in others but overall quite satisfactory.

But in the case of #4, this EMI recording is completely new to me and is the fastest performance I’ve ever heard, so fast that the sense of the music is utterly lost. If you want your Tchaikovsky Fourth beaten to death throughout, this is the recording for you. The pizzicato scherzo is played brilliantly it must be said and for the orchestra to keep up with such punishing tempi underscores once again the amazing virtuosity of the BPO. During the monophonic hi-fi era the Kubelik and the Scherchen performances battled it out for supremacy, but only Scherchen’s has so far appeared on CD. Comissiona leads a creditable version in spectacular, if somewhat fiddled-with sound.

I suppose I must have been imprinted on the very first stereo recording, the Rodzinski Westminster version, since to me it remains fifty years on as the perfect performance both in sound and performance. At every turn the tempi and dramatics are juste, and the sound excellent in dynamics and balance. The last movement re-entry of the fate theme in the trombones still sounds magnificently terrifying. This recording has been out of print for some time, but may still be found at collector’s shops. (Rodzinski also recorded #’s 5 and 6 for Westminster, unfortunately not in stereo, but they are also excellent performances and technically superb recordings.) The Polyansky #4 is a creditable reading in digital sound, but sounds good only if you haven’t heard the Rodzinski. And I seem to be the only person on earth who likes the Rostropovich set of the complete Tchaikovsky Symphonies (etc.) on EMI, released on LP in quad sound but now available on two channel CD in a bargain box. If you want to assemble your own perfect performance of #4 from various disks, Solti and the CSO have done the finest performance of the slow movement ever, even just edging out Rodzinski; so my perfect Fourth would have Rodzinski for movements 1,3, and 4 and Solti for #2. Karajan gets a large goose egg from me on #4.

The Fifth is the most difficult to bring off because, as Taneyev was the first to point out, it was assembled from sketches for ballet and operatic music and the seams show. The long tuneful sections and the brilliant rhythmic sections go along well with about everyone, but when the time comes to shift gears, most conductors have difficulty and break the mood rather than accomplish a smooth transition that maintains tension. Hegge, Monteux, Rodzinski, and Stokowski carry on the best at these points. Temirkanov is the best digital version I know, but it is so individually shaped a performance, in the Stokowski mold, that many may not like it: I didn’t the first time I heard it. Karajan is brilliantly exciting in the energetic dramatic parts with especially fine recording of the brass and percussion; but in the dramatic sections Karajan is more just slow rather than dramatic and it now sounds to me as if his orchestra is impatient with these tempi. Overall, the Stokowski and Monteux are the most satisfactory performances here and both feature excellent sound. The prominent appearance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in these ratings of Tchaikovsky underscores the importance of the brass ensemble in Tchaikovsky’s orchestra, but so far I have not heard any conductor lead the CSO in a definitive recorded performance of the Fifth.

The Sixth, Tchaikovsky’s final complete statement on symphonic form, one of the most perfectly structured works he ever wrote, so perfect in fact that partially in likely despair of ever achieving this pinnacle again he committed suicide.* It is an eloquent presentation of bipolar mood syndrome, something we all experience to some degree, with the lowest lows followed by the highest highs. It ranks with Beethoven’s Fifth (the supreme expression of paranoid schizophrenia, again, something we all experience to some degree) among the most widely and intensely appreciated symphonies ever composed. Over many decades both Stokowski and Furtwängler have claimed dominion over this work, but neither ever recorded a definitive version with exceptional sound quality. Stokowski’s 1973 LSO version in analog quad sound is very good but suffers from occasional loss of ensemble and loss of focus, and Furtwängler’s most recommended recording of the work was made in 1938. To my mind the best overall version, sound and performance, is Reiner with the CSO which will hopefully soon be released in SACD format. Karajan’s conducting of the dramatic sections is, as with the Fifth, more just slow than dramatic, but his performance of the brighter sections is exceptional, and his version of the scherzo is the best I’ve ever heard, both in performance and sound, even better than Reiner’s. So, again, to assemble the perfect Sixth, it’s Reiner for movements 1, 2, and 4, and Karajan for 3.

*One literary critic said of the final poems of Sylvia Plath, written just before her suicide, that from such poems there could be no coming back. I think Tchaikovsky felt the same way about this symphony; the expressions of despair and depression were so intense that once manifested, there was for him no coming back. In his recent one-volume biography of Tchaikovsky David Brown examines the evidence for the alternative "court of honor" theory of Tchaikovsky’s suicide and concludes that there can be no final proof one way or the other. However, if the "court of honor" theory were correct, there would be no reason Tchaikovsky couldn’t simply have moved to Paris where he had many friends who would have helped him settle and he would have been beyond the reach of his accusers—assuming, that is, that he wanted to live.

Tchaikovsky hinted that there was a secret program to the Pathétique Symphony that no one would ever guess, but I think it is fairly easy to guess. To do so one must consider as I do that Swan Lake and Manfred be added to the canon of Tchaikovsky symphonies, and both are about the poet who strives for a greater life, is betrayed, and seeks and finds death in the last movement. The Pathétique Symphony bristles with conflict; in the early movements, the orchestral sections toss musical fragments back and forth like dogs fighting over a bone, and the musical lines are almost exclusively in contrary motion. Hence, the first movement of the Pathétique is the poet’s violent despair and dialogue with suicide, and the conclusion is: yes, probably. The second movement is the rebuttal: love and friendship make life worthwhile; but the conclusion is that love and friendship are never more than awkward ritual dances and betrayal and disappointment are inevitable.

The third movement suggests that the joy of victory and success, found in company with others, makes life worthwhile. Tchaikovsky hated war and his pseudo military marches are generally ironic and satirical. The march music in the Fifth Symphony and in Sleeping Beauty refers to royal processions or pageants and not to military victory. Note the similar use of march tempo music by Rimsky Korsakov in Mlada. This quasi-military march in the Pathétique is so over-the-top as to be ludicrous, a spoof that is its own refutation; compare to the last movements of the Mahler First and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphonies. Also note that in two of Tchaikovsky’s grandest operas, Maid of Orleans, and Mazeppa, war is portrayed as resulting in immediate tragedy for both sides, especially in Mazeppa when the triumphal military music of the entr’acte "The Battle of Poltava" is immediately followed by the tragedy of the mad scene. In the last movement of the Pathétique the argument is over; the poet accepts that death is inevitable and we encounter long sad melodic phrases in parallel motion. The poet dies with the stroke of the gong. The remainder of the symphony is an elegy, not without violent anguish, but sinking inevitably to resignation and despair. Having thus made up his mind and written his requiem, Tchaikovsky was in good spirits. Eyewitnesses report that as he drank the fatal glass of water that would kill him, he was laughing.

Paul Shoemaker


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