Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" (CD review)

Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HDCD247.

German conductor Otto Klemperer was one of those musical interpreters you either loved or hated.  Fortunately, more people loved him than not, and he left us a rich legacy of recordings that spanned a seven-decade career. His most lasting impression, though, probably came from his EMI stereo releases with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras, which he led from 1959 until just a few years before his death in 1973. The performance reviewed here, the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony "Pathetique," he made for EMI in 1961 and HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered and reissued in 2011. It is not one of Klemperer's greatest recordings, but it does provide a typically personal response to the score and a very well-recorded sound.

Anyway, people have responded to Klemperer differently over the years because he never produced a musical rendering that was quite like everyone else's. He believed in giving attention to every detail of a composition, and as he grew older this seemed to mean lingering a bit longer in every movement. As his tempos began to slow down over the years, his audiences began to see his readings either as more monumentally satisfying or more monumentally boring than ever before. His reading of the Sixth offers a little something to make a case for both responses.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, in 1893, premiering it just over a week before his death. It would be nice to think that the composer went out in style, but it wasn't to be. Although today we think of the Sixth Symphony as a staple of the basic repertoire, it did not go over well at first. Audiences misunderstood it. It wasn't until well after the composer's death that people took another look at the work and saw its importance; they even saw in it a possible foreshadowing of the composer's death. Since its publication, people have used the symphony's more-celebrated themes in motion pictures, cartoons, and popular songs.

It's not hard to understand why Tchaikovsky's intensions might have bewildered listeners in his day. The lengthy opening movement unexpectedly starts with a quiet Adagio rather than anything big or attention-getting, and it never divulges its main themes until well into the music. Then it gives us a second-movement waltz that isn't quite a waltz but does a wonderful job playing with waltz-like clues. Following that is a Scherzo in the form of a march, possibly a funeral march, that erupts out of nowhere in a tone wholly unanticipated, building to a frenzied climax. In closing, the finale brings us back to Earth, prompting us to recall the symphony's title, "Pathetique" (whether Tchaikovsky liked the title or not), which the composer intended simply to mean "fervent" or "impassioned," not necessarily "pathetic" or "pitiful." Nevertheless, the symphony's final deep notes fade off softly into a gloomy silence. Although the composer rejected the original subtitle of "Program Symphony," that hasn't stopped listeners from assigning the work any number of meanings, most of them involving death or fate or some such thing.

So, that's what Tchaikovsky apparently intended; now, what does Klemperer give us? I had never heard the recording before and wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Klemperer's strong suit was German and Austrian classical and romantic repertoire, after all: Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schuman, Wagner, that sort of thing; certainly, I thought, not Russian. What I heard, however, was a pleasant surprise and anything but run-of-the-mill. Klemperer's performances were never commonplace. If they were, he'd be just another conductor. Nevertheless, whether that means you'll like what you hear is another question.

Here's the thing: Except in the third-movement Allegro, Klemperer is really no slower overall than most anyone else. Yet his reading is, indeed, different. The first movement opens beautifully, building to the famous love theme flawlessly, which the conductor never sentimentalizes or glorifies but presents in a straightforward manner letting its emotion speak for itself. Klemperer follows it up with all the drama necessary in the movement's second half, the passion seldom flagging no matter the tempo.

The second-movement waltz flows effortlessly despite the halting gait required. Under Klemperer it loses perhaps a little something in charm, which it makes up for in conviction. The march that follows is probably the most-controversial feature of Klemperer's interpretation because it is conspicuously slower and more calculated than we usually hear. Still, the conductor justifies this measured approach by maintaining the music's tension commandingly from beginning to end. Although it will not please purists that Klemperer doesn't always follow the composer's tempo markings, one can at least appreciate that Klemperer doesn't fall into the trap of appearing too hectic or frenetic.

After that, Klemperer produces a finale as moving as that of any conductor I've heard, maybe for the very reason that, again, he doesn't become frantic in trying to prove anything. While this performance may not be a number-one recommendation in the symphony, it should prove a worthy counterpoint to other, more highly animated versions.

EMI recorded Klemperer's Tchaikovsky Sixth at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1961, and HDTT remastered it from an Angel 4-track tape in 2011. The detail one hears is excellent, with a perfectly natural response. The orchestra sounds big and wide without ever overwhelming the listener; it's close-up without sounding edgy or hard but smooth and clear. Yet, there is a reasonably good stage depth as well. It's a winning combination. The dynamic range and impact are also impressive, at some points startlingly real. A lifelike texture to the sonics further contributes to the feeling of being in front of a genuine orchestra, and with virtually no background hiss or noise, the illusion is complete. Say what you will about the performance, there is no question this is one of the very best-sounding Tchaikovsky Sixths currently available.

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