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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet [20:18].
Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op. 74, Pathétique [46:37]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Music Hall, Cincinatti, 21-22 January 2007. DDD
TELARC SACD60681 [67:19]

In making a Tchaikovsky SACD Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony follow in the footsteps of his father Neeme and the Gothenburg Symphony. As I shall be comparing the two, I shall hereafter refer to these conductors by their forenames. Paavo begins this SACD with Romeo and Juliet. To the opening theme, usually linked to Friar Laurence, Paavo brings a kindly meditative holiness. But the accents then introduced by the strings and horns are firm and ominous. The subsidiary rising theme on flutes and clarinets (tr. 1 1:26) is warily expectant and ambivalent but calmed by a bright version of the Friar theme. Neeme’s introduction (Bis BIS SACD 1398, recorded 2003) is more flowing, the accents less marked first time round. Paavo gets the alarm bells going earlier and gives you more time to experience the uncertain atmosphere, taking 6:00 for the introduction against Neeme’s 5:22. For me Paavo overcooks it. I become too aware of Tchaikovsky’s building bricks.
But thereafter I prefer Paavo’s approach. The first theme of the main body of the overture, allegro giusto (6:00) he presents in gruff and increasingly frenzied fashion. We’re suddenly hurled into the melee and experience something of the glee of the fight between the Montagus and Capulets and also that it’s out of control. Neeme is exciting here but has a professionally military discipline. For the second theme, depicting Romeo and Juliet, Paavo achieves a fine balance between creamy cor anglais and violas (8:12) with a golden restful ease about it while its mesmerizing lullaby like second part on muted violins (8:33) is rich, affectionate and all serenity. Neeme’s second theme is richer grained in the strings but more nonchalant in tempo, though I like the beautifully dreamy, insubstantial quality he brings to the second part.
The development is presented with more urgency by Paavo, with at 11:30 the introduction theme on the horns and wisps of the main body first theme on strings. The presentation of the introduction theme on trumpets against heavy syncopated chords in the rest of the orchestra (12:56) is more fierily realized by Paavo, quite a change of perspective for that holy friar Laurence. Neeme showcases the return of the lovers’ theme by slowing down a touch leading up to it and then brings to the theme itself, lusciously presented, subtle yet passionate surges of momentum. Paavo plays all this as marked which makes for a more satisfyingly impetuous lead-in and gives the theme breadth to its ardour and own internal momentum. The lingering fragments on the cellos from 15:18 are amoroso as marked yet with more angst than Neeme’s. Paavo’s coda (17:12) is more graphically the funeral rites with the lovers’ theme more doleful in the strings against a softer but menacing timpani rhythm. The following hymn-like episode is less formal than Neeme’s, a more consolatory religious blessing. Paavo’s lovers have dignity but do they have peace? Above all, quite literally, they have the recollections of their passion in the strings (19:15). This is a finely shaped performance and you mightn’t have my qualms about the introduction. The surround sound has a warm yet clean ambience, one of crisper clarity than the acoustic of the Bis recording, while the Telarc also has a rich bass with trombone and tuba contributions particularly notable.

Turning to the Pathétique symphony, Paavo’s first movement introduction is indeed bleak. The silence between the bassoon solos seems long and sepulchral and the lower strings responses are those of deep mourning. Neeme’s introduction (Bis BIS SACD 1348, recorded 2004) is more flowing, dark grained but without Paavo’s sense of burden. Paavo’s allegro first theme (tr. 2 1:53), an extension of the bassoon’s, is restlessly energetic and becomes more severe when the brass enter, but more steadily built up than Neeme’s it’s more precisely articulated, less frenzied activity. The famous, lyrical second theme (4:27) is beautifully expressed by Paavo in the pale light of muted strings, all its hesitations and surges lovingly phrased. Neeme is tender but less emotive. He brings an urgent ardour in his swifter realization of the theme’s second part whereas Paavo presents this (5:27) as a humane aria by wind soloists in turn before the lovely gleam of the first part’s reappearance on strings no longer with mutes and clarinet solo version played with poise and pathos. Neeme’s first part return is sheeny but still sad and clarinet pure but more objective. The clarinet theme is completed by bassoon, as Tchaikovsky marked, in Neeme’s recording but Paavo uses bass clarinet (9:34) which is often preferred today. In Paavo’s development (9:39) the strings become gritty, the tuttis are stormy and there’s a dire, fateful grandeur about the largamente climax at 13:06 where the trombones seem to dog the strings with malevolence. Neeme’s development has momentum and fire but not Paavo’s sense of a demon unleashed. With Neeme the ‘love’ theme returns gracefully, with Paavo you feel it struggling to respond to the development though affirming the same humanity. Paavo’s coda (17:01), steadier than Neeme’s, is suitably reflective.
Here are the comparative timings.

Paavo Järvi
Neeme Järvi

Paavo’s second movement is a smooth, quite nifty, waltz whose tune is first delivered lightly by cellos with neat cross accents from the woodwind. The violins enter with its second strain (tr. 3 1:03) and shafts of sunlight appear. In all this is an eager search for joy with the climax made a point of psychological as well as structural exhilaration. Paavo takes the Trio (2:24) a little slower, giving it more expressiveness and playing the repeat sotto voce, neither practice marked but effective. In this sudden, though slight, weighing down the sorrow of the first movement is remembered. The recapitulation (4:42) duly picks up speed. So there can be happiness, even if only for a while. In the coda the first note of the cellos’ echo of the Trio (6:56) is made an emotive stab. It’s marked f but not sforzando, with an accent, though the horns are, which is likely the stimulus. The following woodwind solos, also marked f but just slightly pointed here, seem a more artistic resolution. Neeme’s second movement is more urbane and relaxed with a consistent tempo which brings more breadth to the recapitulation, the Trio just a little dusky in a world more at ease with itself.
Paavo’s third movement begins fairly steadily for an allegro molto vivace yet is well observed. It’s reasonable for a march within a scherzo to take time to get going, as if Tchaikovsky wants something more quizzical yet settles eventually for the firm substance of a march in the clarinets (tr. 4 1:50). Neeme is friskier at the outset but less light and neat in articulation, less playful. When the violins take the march over, they add a subsidiary theme. Paavo makes this (2:32) repetitive and dour, trying to drag the march down but not succeeding, yet later transformed in the brass, by which time the march has long become triumphant or perhaps defiantly resolute. Just enjoy the exciting interchange between trombones with tuba and trumpets (7:15), the strings cock-a-hoop (8:33), the piccolo fully engaged (8:40) and everyone making whoopee. Yes, it’s a closing massive downward scale but what a manic send-off. Sometimes, a little incongruously, applauded immediately in concert, you can do better with this SACD, as I did, by just repeating the track. The brass playing in particular is superb and the engineering spectacular. But I should issue a health warning: the explosion at 5:50 is the bass drum marked fff. Neeme’s climax is also spruce but the triumphal element here seems more make-believe. Paavo keeps an eye on the grimness around. 
In the finale Paavo plunges us straightway into passionate grief in the strings and penetrating lamentation from the woodwind, bassoons especially. And he brings a convincing urgency even to this adagio lamentoso. To the central section andante (tr. 5 2:58) Paavo brings the warmth and magnanimity of tenderness even within extreme weariness with changes of dynamic and tempo well caught. The finale’s climax finds the rising of the strings to be beaten down again now of garish writhing backed by the nightmarish whine of stopped horns from 7:36. Trombones and tuba offer a chorale (8:02), a kind of funeral benediction after which you might expect peace. But no, the coda (8:49) is formal. Even though the strings are muted and their sonority is gradually declining, their stabbing accents continue relentlessly. The experience is both painful and absorbing. Neeme’s finale is more intensely grieving and flowing at the outset with an inward expressiveness. Paavo’s more outward expressiveness is starker, a rage against the dying of the light which is paradoxically more comfortable and comforting. His middle section is a more beauteous recollection with heartfelt climax whereas Neeme’s greater control is itself also moving. Neeme’s coda is more bleak. Paavo’s greater formality in the more deliberate accents is the recognition of hopelessness which contains its own accepting dignity.
To sum up, Paavo Järvi’s performances here are very good indeed. Overall I prefer them to Neeme Järvi’s because of their generally greater tension, more affectingly honed shape and sheenier, more emotive lyricism. Occasionally, for instance in the dramatic silences within the Pathétique, they appear a touch over-calculated, but Paavo Järvi achieves a fine balance between structural clarity and emotional engagement. Put it another way, there’s artistry as well as passion, which I appreciate, but this necessarily distances that passion to some degree.
Michael Greenhalgh


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