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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [44.07]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 22/23 March 2017 Philharmonie, Berlin
Hybrid SACD + high-resolution audio files

This recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth SymphonyPathétique’ from the Berliner Philharmoniker and its chief-conductor-elect Kirill Petrenko is their first single release CD on the orchestra’s own label. Also included is a download code for high-resolution audio files of the album (24-bit / up to 192 kHz).

The recording was made in March 2017 at Philharmonie, Berlin at the first concert following Petrenko’s election as the new conductor of this legendary orchestra and before he takes up his post in August 2019. Petrenko first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006, making a memorable impact in a concert of Bartók and Rachmaninov. As part of its 2018 set ‘The John Adams Edition’, the Berliner Philharmoniker under Petrenko has already released a recording of Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, performed at the same March 2017 concert as this Tchaikovsky ‘Pathétique’. This concert opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 ‘Haffner’, but no recording has been released although it would have easily fitted on this album. While in Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle didn’t seem much interested in Tchaikovsky, to my knowledge only performing extracts from The Nutcracker and releasing a recording of the complete ballet on EMI. My fingers are crossed that Petrenko will record a Tchaikovsky series including the much overlooked four orchestral suites.

Universally known as the ‘Pathétique,’ Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is his most deeply moving and profound score. Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov describing the ‘Pathétique’ as “the best thing I have composed” and once again the struggle against fate is central to a work which was to be his last. Kirill Petrenko expresses the view that for Tchaikovsky “It reflects a lifelong struggle against his own destiny.” The première took place in October 1893 in Saint Petersburg under Tchaikovsky’s own baton and just over a week later the composer was dead. Few musical farewells to the world are more affecting.

In the opening movement, Adagio - Allegro non troppo, which immerges slowly, the stylish and vitally engaging playing is striking. Adopting a restrained passion, Petrenko avoids any temptation to wallow and there is a gloriously temperamental power which erupts into action at point 8.56 with the sudden start of the development section. Amid the impressively heightened tension of the performance, there is a deepening undertow of mystery and unease. From start to finish, the judiciously paced Allegro con grazia flows buoyantly with all the dreamlike elegance of a Viennese waltz. The carefree mood disappears in the central section at 2.26-4.32 into one of unease and foreboding. Under Petrenko, the opening of the stunningly played Scherzo evokes a winter scene of a cold and invigorating sleigh ride through a snow-covered forest. The way Petrenko cranks up the rugged orchestral weight and volume of the stirring march is both gripping and highly dramatic. By an extraordinary stroke, Tchaikovsky closes the symphony with a slow movement marked Adagio lamentoso – Andante, a scheme that under the circumstances feels so apposite. The descending phrases create a profound melancholy together with a chorale of sorrow on the brass and winds as if mirroring the last vestiges of human spirit slowly fading away. This intense cry of torment is probably unequalled in the history of music. Petrenko and his Berliner Philharmoniker produce an array of emotions that can leave the listener crushed. Under Petrenko the orchestra play throughout with total commitment and power when needed. Together with impressive reserves of energy, they produce a gripping sense of deep emotional engagement.

The recording team of Christoph Franke and René Möller excel, providing top-drawer sound quality on the hybrid SACD. For most of the time on this live recording it is hard to detect any extraneous noise and no applause has been retained at the conclusion. Presented in the form of a hardback book, there is a foreword written by orchestral board members, while the essay written by Malte Krasting is an interesting read, though I wanted information about each of the four movements. There are also a number of interesting archive photographs.

Out of the wide choice available, the recordings of the ‘Pathétique’ that I normally reach for are led by the engagingly dramatic reading from Valery Gergiev and Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in 2004 at the Musikverein, Vienna on Philips. There is also the exciting and beautifully proportioned reading with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony recorded live in 2015 at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings. Another contender, full of beauty and intense passion, is the recording from the Czech Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov from 2015 at Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague on Decca. Of the mono recordings, I admire the compelling 1956 Konzerthaus, Vienna account from Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky on Deutsche Grammophon.

In the notes, Petrenko explains why he has made so few recordings and states “One should only make recordings if they have something special to present.” Choosing this ‘Pathétique’ for release certainly reinforces Petrenko’s viewpoint. I’ve not heard a finer performance of the ‘Pathétique’ than this from Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker, which goes right to the top of the pile. Unquestionably, this is very special recording!

Michael Cookson

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