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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.54 [29.44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 Pathétique* [45.35]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. Herkulessaal, Munich, 18-21 March 2013; *Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, 4-7 June 2013
BR KLASSIK 900123 [75.25]

These two live recordings conducted by Mariss Jansons constitute the conductor’s second outings on disc with each of these scores. Both were previously given studio readings with the Oslo Philharmonic, the Tchaikovsky for Chandos (highly regarded at the time of the original issue) and the Shostakovich for EMI (less universally favoured). Although both the new issues are described as live recordings, the dates given certainly imply that the performances have been edited together from several individual sessions. It must be observed that this procedure rather negates the professed major advantage of live recordings – the sense of spontaneity generated – even while avoiding minor mishaps which might arise. The audience is remarkably silent throughout, only bursting in with applause at the end of each symphony.
 
The performance of the Pathétique gets off to a very unfortunate start, with a frog seemingly finding its momentary way into the reed during the opening bassoon statement of the main theme (track 4, 0.07). After that things improve enormously, but the sense of excitement that informed Jansons’ Oslo recording has somehow gone missing. The orchestral playing is superb, not least in the fizzing account of the first movement development; but in his anxiety to avoid over-larding the score with emotion, Jansons pulls his punches in the statement of the second subject which precedes it. Then again at the recapitulation (13.02) Jansons makes a massive rallentando to drive home the histrionic elements with maximum impact.
 
The 5/4 waltz is given a delicious lilt, but the opening of the scherzo-march is perhaps a little too carefully controlled, not given the thistledown lightness of touch which it could possess and which we can hear in other recordings. Jansons sustains plenty of momentum right up to the end, and the plangent entry of the strings at the beginning of the slow finale has just the right sense of contrast. A suspicious silence before the opening leads one to suspect that audience reaction may have been edited out. The trombones at 7.50 are not perhaps as ppppp as they might be, but that is a common failing. On the whole this is a performance that would make a massive impression in the concert hall, but whether it would repay repeated listening at home may be more doubtful. There is a long spellbound silence at the end before the audience bursts in with their applause.
 
I have observed that Jansons’ Oslo recording of the Shostakovich Sixth was not received with universal acclaim on its original release. Complaints focused on a perception that the ‘punches’ of the music were being pulled with a consequent loss of character. Indeed one notes a certain lack of character here too. This can be heard in the flute solo during the first movement (track 1, 6.42) even while appreciating the heartfelt outburst from the strings that follows. The scherzo fizzes with life in a way that the Oslo reading did not, while the finale bounces along with all the exuberance that one could wish.
 
The coupling of these two Sixth Symphonies by Russian composers is, as far as I aware, unique in the catalogue. Those wishing to hear Jansons’ later thoughts on these scores will be well satisfied with both the performances and the superlatively engineered recording.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 
Previous review: Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 6 ~~ Tchaikovsky symphony 6