Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6,
Dmitrii Kitaenko, cond.; Cologne Gürzenich O
OEHMS OC 666 (SACD: 51:09)
Dmitrii Kitaenko is a distinguished Russian conductor whom we might expect to have something worthwhile to say about Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. The Gürzenich Orchestra (the name taken by the orchestra of the Cologne Opera when it performs concerts) is a venerable ensemble that has not been much in the international spotlight but in the past has
been associated with such eminent conductors as Otto Klemperer, Hermann Abendroth, and Günter Wand. This disc is part of an ongoing series of the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies, but the only other installment to appear so far is the
Symphony, which received an enthusiastic endorsement from Raymond Tuttle and somewhat more qualified one from Arthur Lintgen in
34:2. It is unfortunately not uncommon for the “Pathétique” to be offered without any coupling on a CD, but with more than 28 minutes of unused capacity, one of the composer’s longer concert overtures could easily have been accommodated.
Nonetheless, quality is more important than quantity, and this is a very carefully prepared performance, although one that is likely to be controversial. Noting the overall timing, one might be tempted to conclude that the performance is too slow, since the average rendition clocks in at around 45 minutes, and I suspect some will find it so. But the conductor is able to sustain tension and momentum at this deliberate pace and to craft an interpretation of remarkable expressivity and power. Entrances and details of instrumentation and texture register clearly and precisely. Kitaenko tends to adhere firmly to an established tempo, resisting the temptation to accelerate in crescendi and building climaxes through control of dynamics and a clear presentation of each layer of instrumentation. The Gürzenich strings may not be as lustrous as some, but they compensate with a clear and well-focused sound. A few minor imprecisions in the winds detract little from the performance. The first movement opens at a steady, measured pace, conveying a sense of great desolation. The exposition effectively captures the elegiac quality of the music, while the stormy development section is relentlessly forceful and builds to a truly shattering conclusion, a shriek of anguish. The movement ends in unearthly stillness and repose. The second-movement waltz is suitably graceful, but in slowing down markedly for the middle section Kitaenko underlines the contrast, interrupting the relatively carefree progress of the movement with a darkening atmosphere and sense of lamentation. After an urgent and thrusting third movement, the finale is a sustained outpouring of deep sadness and regret without sentimentality, and the closing pages are unsurpassed in their evocation of utter bleakness and despair.
The stereo SACD sound provides clarity and focus and a wide dynamic range, although the soundstage is not especially wide or deep. The treble sound is bright and aggressive but free from harshness. Bass presence is thunderous but well defined, and climaxes have overwhelming weight and power. The sound on the CD layer is also good, although not as open and transparent. The violins also thin out a bit and lose some body, but bass weight and presence are still very good. I do not have the facilities to evaluate multichannel sound.
SACD competition for this release is currently limited to the recordings of Neeme Järvi (BIS), Paavo Järvi (Telarc), Christoph Eschenbach (Ondine), Kurt Masur (Querstand), and Pierre Monteux (RCA). Eschenbach’s recording has received both praise and condemnation in the pages of
. It offers the richer tonal palette of the Philadelphia Orchestra but less precise articulation than Kitaenko, in what strikes me as a decent middle-of-the-road affair. Paavo Järvi has impressed me favorably in some concert performances, but his “Pathétique” recording seems inappropriately small-scaled and lacking in intensity. Monteux’s 1955 recording with the Boston Symphony is a classic and still sounds very impressive in its SACD guise, but I have some reservations. His performance is swift and free from excesses but seems slightly aloof and lacks the tautness and drive some others have brought to the work. The waltz movement seems more jaunty than graceful. I have not heard the elder Järvi’s recording, nor that of Masur, although the latter was welcomed by Michael Ullman in
31:5. Of the SACD versions I have heard, Kitaenko would be my unhesitating first choice.
Most prominent conductors have tried their hand with this piece, often more than once, and many fine performances are available on conventional CD. I will limit myself to mentioning a few that I’ve found especially rewarding. No Tchaikovsky collection would be complete without at least one of Evgeny Mravinsky’s recordings of this symphony. Current domestic availability appears limited to his two studio recordings for DG, of which the 1960 stereo version is the obvious choice. All of Mravinsky’s performances are similar in design. He drives the faster, more assertive portions of the work with unmatched ferocity but is also capable of delicacy and repose where needed. Jascha Horenstein’s 1967 recording with the London Symphony for EMI, most recently available on a Royal Classics CD, combines an unusual degree of textural clarity with great eloquence and forcefulness. With persuasive flexibility of tempo, careful attention to matters of phrasing, texture, and dynamics, and tasteful expressivity, Giuseppe Sinopoli’s distinctive rendition (with the Philharmonia Orchestra on DG) shows this sometimes erratic conductor at his best. Mstislav Rostropovich may not have had the technical proficiency as a conductor that he possessed as a cellist, but he definitely had a feel for this music and knew how to get the best out of string players. His recording with the London Philharmonic for EMI is tonally sumptuous, passionate, and involving.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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