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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathétique [43:49]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
rec. 22 April 1952, Concert Hall, Chicago

This is the first time I have sampled anything from the Forgotten Records stable. I have however read with great interest many reviews on this site of their rare and hard-to-obtain recording transfers/reissues. As a preliminary to writing this review, and to orientate myself, I read Nick Morgan’s excellent article on this innovative and enterprising company in the Autumn 2011 Classical Recordings Quarterly. In it, Morgan interviews the label’s founder Alain Deguernel, who lays his cards on the table: ‘I like collectors! Collectors are the most musical music-lovers’. He won me over immediately. When I hear such names as Michele Auclair, Devy Erlih and the Quatuor Loewenguth, I sit up and take notice. Forgotten Records has made a specialty of French records of the 1950s, but not exclusively, as is shown by the recording I am reviewing here. They use minimal intervention, and custom-made CDs are issued on-demand. The transfers derive from high quality LPs. 

On offer here is a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Kubelik, originally released by Forgotten Records in 2009 and here reissued. The recording was made in 1952, almost midway into Kubelik’s brief three-season tenure with the orchestra. In 1950, he became music director of this illustrious band, having turned down an offer to succeed Sir Adrian Boult as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However, things didn’t go too well. He was eventually hounded out of his post by the machinations of the music critic Claudia Cassidy and the orchestra’s trustees, whose philistine attitudes to his programming of too many contemporary works, and his demands for lengthy rehearsal time, they considered unpalatable. Yet, during his time in Chicago, Kubelik and his orchestra produced some fine recordings on Mercury and these have garnered much critical acclaim.
Coincidentally, just this week I obtained the 2-cd set of Erich Kleiber conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies 4 and 6 on Testament (SBT2 1352). A year separates that 1953 Pathétique with the Paris-based Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and the Kubelik 1952 Chicago reading. It was interesting to do a comparison. I found Kubelik’s performance more engaging and energized, especially the first movement. When the ‘big tune’ comes in it is more contained and less romanticized than Kleiber’s. The Chicago sound is generally less congested, and this allows much more detail in the orchestration to emerge. Woodwinds are especially transparent and emerge with diaphanous translucency. The brass section is also notable for its burnished tone. Kubelik’s second movement is slightly lighter on its feet.
Neither performance of the third movement gave me any cause for concern. It is in the fourth movement where there is the potential for things to go badly wrong. I recall listening to the Bernstein New York Philharmonic DG recording some time ago. The last movement is a staggering 17 minutes of self-indulgent, vulgar sentimentality. To put it in perspective, Kubelik’s finale is 9:56. Even though he’s a minute longer than Kleiber, the emotional level is sensibly reined in and well judged.
It is for these reasons that Kubelik’s 1952 recording has the edge. The recording is in remarkably good sound for its age - the sources are: (Mercury MG 50006; MLP 7518_ Wing (Mercury) WL 1014, MGW 14020). It is a performance I would be very happy to return to. It is regrettable that there is no documentation, and Deguernel acknowledges this in the Morgan interview. He goes on to say that he is going to start producing notes eventually. Despite this browsing their catalogue has produced much more that I would like to explore.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky symphony 6