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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique) (1893) [46:12]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture, Op. 21 (1826) [11:45]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. in concert, Royal Festival Hall, February 2009

Sir Charles Mackerras's way with the Pathétique combines a forthright musicality with a keen sense of orchestral colour. In the pungent opening bassoon solos, note the carefully sculpted hairpin dynamics in the supporting strings. A few pages later, hear the vibrant transparency of the horn-and-woodwind chords, and the taut, full-bodied punctuating fanfares from the brass. The second theme sings with poised restraint. The development is bracing, though the strings and the trombones disagree about the tempo in their back-and-forth phrases at the climax. The clarinet's reprise of the second theme is touched with a regretful melancholy and the coda treads with dignity.

The Allegro con grazia goes with a nice lift - the five-beat pattern actually feels like a waltz - and the violins lighten the dotted patterns without scanting the note values. The central, minor section maintains the established tempo, with the timpani pulses providing a distressed undercurrent. A fetching diminuendo lightens the coda, and the attack on the winds' final chord is clean.

Many conductors might be content simply to let an orchestra of Philharmonia calibre play the march for its virtuoso flash. Mackerras takes some care over characterization as well. The clarinets introduce the main theme playfully; it sounds smart and trim when the violins take it over. There's bits of rushing here and there - not, oddly, in the little running figures, where you'd expect it - but I enjoyed the dynamic, no-nonsense climaxes, with the brasses' upward scales driving forward.

The very first chord of the Finale - with the top note in the second violins - sounds tentative, but this improves when the theme returns. On the theme's extended "tail", the bassoons' unison descent, the supporting strings execute a precise diminuendo, after which Mackerras launches the second theme with a firm sense of direction. A few untoward accelerations suggest the heat of performance: at 0:50, for example, which is marked rallentando after the preceding affrettando. The indicated stringendo molto at 6:28 also feels like too much too soon. The hairpin dynamics on the trombone chorale are effective, as is the final fade.

The Midsummer Night's Dream Overture is an unhackneyed complement to the symphony, and Mackerras leads a characterful performance. It's good to hear the strings articulating crisply at a reasonable speed. The second theme flows easily; the cross-rhythmic attacks in the development are pointed. The music strides proudly, as it should, into the false ending; the winds transition into the final coda - the real one - with a lovely wistfulness.

The sound earns points for its suggestion of depth and body around the winds, as at the start of the Mendelssohn, and of a sense of texture. It gets demerits for unpleasantly harsh brass outbursts in the symphony's first movement; those in the march bothered me less.

Considering Sir Charles's high profile as a conductor, his recording career was spotty. After a handful of lighter-classical programmes for Philips and EMI - recordings that still stand well - the majors mostly ignored him. Decca did however bring him in for its Janáček opera series in the late 1970s. His "Indian summer" in the Telarc studios, taping cycles of Brahms, Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan, found him too casual and laissez-faire a disciplinarian. Let this Signum disc and its companion issues stand as a more fitting memorial to him.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.


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