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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, op.74, “Pathétique” (1893) [48:33]
Sinfonie Orchester Wuppertal/Toshiyuki Kamioka
rec. live, Historische Stadthalle (Großer Saal) Wuppertal, Germany, 13-14 May 2007
TDK TDKMA301 [48:33] 
Experience Classicsonline

Most readers will probably own at least one classic recording of the Pathétique.  To clarify my own - obviously very Russian! - position, the interpreters whose discs I take from the shelves most often include Golovanov, Mravinsky and Svetlanov.  Those gentlemen had already set down arguably definitive – if very individual – recordings by the end of the 1960s so why, one might ask, do we need any more?

There are, I think, two obvious answers.  The first is that technological advances and consequent significant improvements in recorded sound justify re-recording the core repertoire.  And the second is that there is always room for a new disc when the interpreters have something novel to say about even the most familiar work. 

The last Pathétique I added to my own collection, for instance, was the controversial 2003 recording by Mikko Franck and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (on Ondine ODE10022).  That intensely subjective reading was characterised by some immensely slow tempi, with the finale, for instance, clocking in at an unbelievable 14:19, almost half as long again as the 9:45 of Mravinsky’s 1961 recording.  That may well have provided me with a Pathétique in state of the art sound, but Franck’s interpretation is not one that I choose to return to with any regularity. 

So what of this new version?  Certainly, the sound is as good as it currently gets.  The immediate impression may be of a slight degree of bass-heaviness, especially when compared to those brassy, if not downright raucous, Soviet recordings already mentioned.  But, the more one listens, the more one appreciates that the sound picture here is utterly realistic, with engineering so subtle that it actually appears that there hasn’t been any at all.  In fact, this is a disc that places you in the Wuppertal concert hall’s best seats and simply leaves you to listen to the music-making. You will be relieved to know that, apart from the odd cough or two in the first movement, your fellow audience members are very discreet. 

So is this a performance that is actually worth hearing?  I think it is, for the sake of appreciating Kamioka’s particular conception of the work.  Oddly enough, one of the most striking elements of that conception is the conductor’s use of silence.  I am not sure that I would go all the way with booklet writer Professor Dr. Lutz-Werner Hesse who refers to Tchaikovsky’s “ability to base an evolution of maximal power on nothing more than extreme silence”, if only because I find it hard to see how one silence can be any more “extreme” than another.  But the inordinately long pauses that Kamioka introduces for dramatic effect - most notably in the first and last movements - are certainly most effective.  It is also worth highlighting that his decision to dramatically shorten the pause between the third and fourth movements also makes a striking musical impression. 

The opening of the first movement does a great deal to set the atmosphere for the whole performance.  The adagio is weightier than usual – less an introduction than a statement of intent – and Kamioka’s careful control of a wider than usual dynamic range effectively creates an atmosphere of both mystery and apprehensive foreboding.  The subsequent allegro non troppo is more conventional in approach, but provides a useful showcase for the orchestra to show its capabilities.  The woodwind make a particularly positive impression but both the brass and the strings are clearly more than merely competent.  Kamioka employs considerable but generally tasteful rubato and a wide dynamic range, both contributing to a particularly dramatic reading of the score in which the timpanist, to take just a single example, is encouraged to make an even weightier contribution than usual. 

The second movement gives the orchestra’s sonorous string section its head and Kamioka keeps the music flowing as its designation allegro con grazia indicates it should, though without ever losing its sense of purpose.  Once again, careful control of dynamic range reinforces the conductor’s musical intentions. 

Accomplished and powerful brass players stand out in the allegro molto vivace third movement.  That timpanist, too, makes a dramatic impression – more so than in any other account I have heard – at 7:05.  Yet Kamioka skilfully ensures, as many conductors fail to do, that the movement’s final bars make clear that all the preceding musical bombast has been essentially hollow and, at the final reckoning, built on sand.  The virtually immediate entry of the final adagio lamentoso movement thus seems absolutely right and in context.  The sonority of the strings is once more apparent and – yet again! – dramatically contrasted dynamics emphasise the theatricality of the overall conception.  The final pages see a complete breakdown that leaves an even bleaker and more negative impression than usual, especially on the evidently traumatised Wuppertal audience who are too stunned to applaud until after several seconds of, no doubt, “extreme” silence. 

All in all, then, this is a disc that is well worth investigating.  The Pathétique is such a subjective and multi-faceted work that you short-change yourself by owning just a single version.  Kamioka’s penchant for high drama offers an approach at least as valid as several others and he is well served by the orchestra that he has headed since 2004.  It would be nonsense to suggest that the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic need see it as a potential rival, but the Sinfonie Orchester Wuppertal is clearly a first class regional ensemble that responds in a disciplined yet sensitive manner to its conductor. 

The booklet notes are presented first in Japanese, then in German and only third in English.  That suggests to me that perhaps Kamioka has a bigger reputation in his homeland, where he has conducted the NHK-Symphony Orchestra and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, and in the German-speaking areas of Europe where he has given regular concerts with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Bamberger Sinfoniker and the radio orchestras of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Südwestrundfunk. 

On the basis of this disc, though, I’d suggest that it may well not be too long before Toshiyuki Kamioka’s name is rather more widely known and appreciated.

Rob Maynard




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