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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 74 ‘Pathétique’
Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 22/23 March 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Conductor Kirill Petrenko has now assumed the post of Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a role he stepped into on August 19, 2019. Here, he and this renowned orchestra deliver the greatest performance of the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony that I’ve ever encountered. Period. It clearly separates itself from the dozens that I’ve heard, whether live or recorded. This is, in fact, both live and recorded, deriving from concerts given in March 2017 at the Berlin Philharmonie. It is not just the performance that is superb here but the sound reproduction also. This SACD on the orchestra’s own label features sonics that are powerful, well balanced and utterly vivid.

Tempos throughout the symphony fall mostly into the moderate range, but obviously there is nothing moderate about the committed way the music is played. The first movement opens with the necessary mysterious sense in the Adagio Introduction, the bassoon sounding both ominous and forlorn, the droning strings subtly reinforcing the dark mood. As the music proceeds in the exposition, tension and anxiety are worked up, setting the stage for contrast with the appearance of the lovely alternate theme. It is played warmly and passionately, the phrasing by Petrenko, with deft use of rubato and subtle adjustments in dynamics, perfectly conveys the sense of yearning and emotional ambivalence in the melody’s ravishing character. The development section begins with a powerful, jolting tutti chord that might knock you out of your seat. Thereafter, urgency and tension build, the orchestra playing its heart out and finally delivering a potent climax. The recapitulation of the alternate theme is most effective – sad but still alive with passion – it gradually weakens and leads to the consoling but mournful coda. From every standpoint this is as fine a rendering of this movement as you’re likely to hear.

The second movement is no less successful. In an average performance, the music here (having a mostly playful and light character in its so-called “limping waltz” theme) can seem a bit of a let-down. Not so with Petrenko and the Berliners. The playing again is quite suited to the emotional pitch of the music: Suave, graceful and precisely executed, and the middle section divulges the necessary restive sense.

The ensuing panel is ebullient, with springy rhythms, a full range of dynamics that are always brilliantly applied, and tempos that perfectly fit Petrenko’s scintillating take on this movement. The supposed idea behind the music here is to express ultimate disappointment via the high-spirited march theme which keeps building toward a seemingly greater happiness on each appearance but a happiness that can’t quite reach the final ecstasy it strives for, as the forte climaxes deliberately fall short. Why are they held back? Tchaikovsky’s answer comes in the finale. Sadness awaits from inevitable death or from some other torment. Getting back to the third movement for the moment, Petrenko and the Berliners play the music to the hilt, quite the way it is marked, delivering a knock-out performance, and whether you take the composer’s meaning from it or not, it can hardly be realised any better.

Ditto for the finale. It is played with all the mournful passion and heart-wrenching sadness the score demands. The strings perform in an especially intense manner, digging into the music for dear life, and brass and other winds play with an equally vehement dedication. When the ending comes, as the music fades listlessly away, you feel the loss, the despair, the defeat. This is a powerful, superb realisation of this movement.

I’ve already mentioned the excellent sound reproduction on this SACD and that only adds to its considerable appeal. Normally I make comparisons with other available performances but what’s the point here? Okay, there may be a drawback or two: This recording only offers forty-four minutes of music and comes in cumbersome packaging that might be a storage problem. The disc is housed within an oblong multi-page hardcover booklet that contains profuse notes and many photographs of the composer, conductor, orchestra (including names of all the members), original score pages and other pertinent images. But then many will regard the booklet as a welcome extra. In the end, one should focus on the primary concern: This disc features an utterly outstanding performance of a great symphony that Tchaikovsky mavens and most others must hear.
Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ John Quinn

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