Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6,
Herbert von Karajan, cond; Philharmonia O
EMI 72474 (67:50)
Arkivmusic.com currently lists a whopping 131 recordings of the “Pathétique.” Do we really need another—especially one made as far back as 1955? In this case at least, the answer is a resounding yes.
First of all, there’s the recorded sound. RCA had
begun making experimental stereo recordings around 1954. Apparently, EMI very quickly followed suit. This was no mean experiment for EMI, however. The sound they achieved with very little prior experience is remarkably vivid and richly detailed, and the orchestra spreads out naturally and realistically between the speakers. Only some mild tape hiss and congestion in the loudest, brassiest climaxes betray the vintage of these remarkable recordings.
Then there’s the Philharmonia. I’d forgotten just how fine this orchestra was in those days. After all, Dennis Brain led the horn section, and the other principal players were very nearly at his exalted level. The strings, too, are exceptionally plush and opulent here—almost as fine as the Boston Symphony, which recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth that same year with Pierre Monteux at the helm. Karajan undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for the richness of the strings. Guido Cantelli recorded the “Pathétique” with the Philharmonia in 1953. It’s a volatile, hot-blooded account, but the strings seem weak and thin next to this later recording.
Most important of all, however, is Karajan’s powerful interpretation of this oft-performed masterpiece. In the first movement, he’s cooler and more analytical than Cantelli, and his tempo is much slower—19:16 compared to Cantelli’s sprightly 16: 20. Even Bernstein, who was often condemned for a self-indulgent approach to this music, polished off the first movement in a mere 18:44 in his 1964 recording. In Karajan’s hands, the adagio introduction is appropriately solemn and laden with yearning and pain. Indeed, this performance boasts an emotional depth that one rarely encounters elsewhere in Karajan’s work. The main body of the movement is exceptionally dramatic and stormy. To me there’s a definite kinship between the most fateful episodes in the development and the overture to Verdi’s
La forza del destino
. Karajan’s experience in the opera pit helps bring this connection to the fore.
The second movement is unexpectedly graceful and flowing, given that it’s a 5/4 waltz. At 8:26, Karajan makes both Cantelli (8:05) and Monteux (7:05) seem rushed and perfunctory by comparison. All three conductors—and even Bernstein in 1964—seem to agree that the Scherzo should run approximately 9 minutes. Karajan’s is crisp and bracing with heroic brass and sparkling strings. The finale becomes more poignant as it goes in Karajan’s hands, yet the results are never maudlin, owing to his deft pacing and unerring sense of drama. The final andante is a relatively brisk walk, which lends an appropriate feeling of restlessness to the proceedings, and the last few bars are just as dark and lonely as the grave.
Four years later, Karajan and the Philharmonia taped their magical performance of the familiar suite from
. Dennis Brain was gone—killed in a horrific car crash—but the orchestra sounds just as poised and polished as in the Symphony. Karajan’s genial, unaffected reading on this occasion makes his quirky 1965 Vienna Philharmonic recording on London seem even more perverse and annoying than ever.
This stunning new EMI reissue is available for the ridiculously low price of $7.99. So, what are you waiting for?
FANFARE: Tom Godell
Works on This Recording
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1875-1876; Russia
Featured Sound Samples
Swan Lake: Suite: Swan Theme
Symphony no 6 "Pathétique": IV. Adagio lamentoso
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