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Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 Pathétique
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. May 1976, Philharmonie Berlin. ADD
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 419 486-2 [45:57]

Tchaikovsky was one of the composers with whom Karajan had a particular affinity and, of his works, the Pathétique was the one he most recorded – half a dozen times between 1948 and 1984. My personal touchstone among them has always been the one he made in September 1971 with the Berlin Philharmonic in the warm acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, which I consider to be one of his great achievements, but I was interested to revisit this 1976 recording to see how it compared, both interpretatively and sonically. Karajan rarely much changed his interpretative stance once he had settled upon it, but the slight drawback to the 1971 EMI recording which remained after remastering was a certain persistent shrillness in the upper frequencies and a little faint hiss. Otherwise, the sound is deep and golden and I still find it to have slightly more immediacy than this 1987 DG remastering, even if there is very little in it.

From an artistic perspective, too, there is virtually no difference. There was never anything slick or superficial about Karajan’s traversals of this score; every movement reflects his grip on Tchaikovsky's psychological narrative. It seems to me that Karajan appreciated the carefully devised symmetry of the symphony’s structure and helps the listener apprehend how its four distinct sections vividly delineate mental breakdown. Within the variations of the main theme, the first movement encompasses despair, heroic resistance and resolve, yearning and nostalgia for lost love, and ultimate annihilation. First, an atmosphere of brooding gloom is created, then the love theme is indulgently caressed, before the half-way-point when after the lament from the solo clarinet, a thunderous tutti chord signals the hurtling towards emotional cataclysm. The 1971 recording still has the edge when it comes to creating the necessary, terrifying orchestral din, enhanced by the extra presence in the sound, but the reprise of the love theme in both recordings is tenderly heart-breaking and the dynamics of the stoic, pizzicato “pacing” motif which concludes the movement are beautifully graded.

As with his earlier EMI recording, Karajan ironically undermines the superficial Gemütlichkeit of the limping, 5/4 pseudo-waltz by weaving a thread of menace into the fabric of its darker middle section and stresses the persistent warning notes sounded by the woodwind and horns in the coda. The Scherzo is despatched with feather-light, Mendelssohnian fleetness, delicacy and bravura, demonstrating that the BPO was not just a shiny steamroller. Their feverish, frenetic concentration aptly portrays a soul on the edge but, again, for me, the earlier recording finds just a tad more lift, drive and sparkle, aided by a marginally quicker tempo and the sharper delineation afforded by the brighter sound.

It is however, the finale which must be the crucial discriminator in assessing which recording is superior. In truth, there is again very little choose between them; Karajan expertly charts the sorry narrative of this movement: the first quarter depicts a spiralling down into despond, then a ray of hope breaks through in a consolatory theme suggesting a courageous struggle against the demons until the half-way mark, after which, the third quarter destroys that hope and plunges us into the crisis of total despair, and the final section is a funereal dirge which descends into black nothingness.

The sumptuousness of the playing is stunning and the listener will appreciate the extraordinary unanimity and coordination of this great orchestra in phrase after phrase; there is never a hint of raggedness in the execution of those big, sobbing phrases. Forced to choose, I would still plump for the marginally greater intensity of the earlier recording but this DG account still provides a reading of an excellence unparalleled by any other conductor and orchestra team.

Ralph Moore

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