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Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Symphony No 6

Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2009
Royal Festival Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Misha Donat
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: May 2011
Total duration: 57 minutes 57 seconds

The next album in Signum’s series of live orchestral recordings with the Philharmonia features the late Sir Charles Mackerras conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique).

This was Tchaikovsky’s final completed symphony, premiered in St Petersberg under the baton of the composer in 1893, nine days before his death, dedicated to his nephew Vladimir ‘Bob’ Davydov.

The Philharmonia Orchestra are widely recognized as the UK’s finest performers with an impressive recording legacy. The orchestra prides itself on collaborations with the finest musicians of our day.


'There is an immediacy and incisive, almost forensic clarity to this 2009 live performance that makes for tremendous drama at points of crisis. The crack of doom heralded by timpani at the start of the development is all-out electrifying (accentuated, of course, by a gripping, almost inaudible 'fade to black' in the bass clarinet beforehand)—indeed, the forcefulness of the timpani and brass-playing throughout is nothing if not intimidating. And what a dark, saturating sostenuto from the strings at the climax—broadly paced, with trombones bearing down unforgivingly … Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream leavens Tchaikovsky's dark night of the soul with shimmering textures and spry articulation. So much of what Mackerras did was governed by an acute sense of what articulation can achieve—and this is a superb example' (Gramophone)

'Tchaikovsky composed his last, obsessively tragic symphony just before his sudden death from typhoid in 1893—with the result that, ever since, the world has wondered whether or not he intended his masterpiece, consciously or otherwise, as a kind of personal requiem. We'll never know. Recorded live in the Royal Festival Hall in 2009, Mackerras's performance with the Philharmonia was evidently one of those occasions that, if you were lucky enough to be there, you'll never forget. The symphony's first movement, especially, reaches a level of intensity that's seriously frightening, with astonishing virtuoso firepower from every corner of the orchestra. Through the lyrical Intermezzo and relentless March movements that lead towards the desolate finale, the octane level never lets up. After this, Mendelssohn's overture, performed in the same concert, is a life-restoring experience, with playing of wonderful deftness and character. You probably won't hear a greater performance of the 'Pathétique' Symphony: I certainly never have. And in its different, fleet-footed way, the delivery in the Mendelssohn is in the same class' (Classic FM Magazine)

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Like his Russian compatriot, Dmitri Shostakovich, a fug of mystery often surrounds the life and music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky—a mix of fact and myth which, while absorbing, tends to mist the music in hearsay, speculation, economy of truth and even possible fabrication. In Shostakovich’s case it is the eternally confusing question as to the extent to which he was playing the Soviet Union’s upper echelons and apparatchiks—or being played by them. In Tchaikovsky’s case, it is the manner in which he led his life and the circumstances of his death which have led to fevered debate. While Shostakovich was periodically celebrated and excoriated by Stalin and his successors, Tchaikovsky was eventually rehabilitated from being a decadent product of Tsarist Russia into a ‘standard-bearer of human progress’ by the Soviet authorities—an about turn brought on by little more than his extreme popularity in the USSR as well as in the rest of the world.

Tchaikovsky’s immense musical achievement was no less initially undermined by the West during the early Twentieth Century. He died not long before the recording industry was beginning to bring classical music to the masses, and the profundity of his music, as well as the luridly fascinating nature of the legends associated with him, helped the industry in no small way. Surrounding music with a narrative is a sure-fire way to bring it to the market—outside associations helping to give context and explanation to music which might otherwise not find an immediate connection with the listener. Tchaikovsky’s final symphony has been affected by both the positive and negative aspects of such a narrative approach.

Born in the small town of Votkinsk, near the Ural Mountains, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s father was a mining engineer and the boy Pyotr was proficient in languages and music from an early age, amassing a good many compositions in his early teenage years. His parents’ initial indulgence of his musical abilities gave way to the normal realities of the age and so the 10-year-old was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, a superior institution which specialised in law and more specifically provided a relatively fast track into the civil service. The death of his mother a few years later, from cholera, was a devastating loss to the young teenager, indeed decades later he could write to his benefactor: ‘Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday’. Graduating in 1859, Tchaikovsky took up a position in the Ministry of Justice, but by late 1862 his musical leanings led him to enrol in Anton Rubinstein’s newly-minted Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, where he flourished prior to joining the staff of Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay’s Moscow Conservatoire. Ten years of teaching and composing were abruptly called to a halt in 1878 when the already highly regarded composer was given a monthly stipend of 1500 francs through the generous patronage of a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck.

Von Meck, aside from bearing him 18 children, encouraged her husband Karl to maximise his considerable engineering abilities and on his death she duly inherited major railway networks, extensive estates and sizeable bank accounts. Famously, she met Tchaikovsky only once, and even then by happenstance—both parties keeping their distance, and fleeing before long without apparently exchanging a word. Such an apparently odd arrangement was rather more likely by design, stemming from her reclusive nature and wilfulness rather than any more fanciful or romantic notions that have been proposed. Reputedly a fine pianist in her youth, she appears to have been devoted to music, employing Debussy to travel with her family, teach her children and accompany her in four-hand works for piano, among other musical duties. She even gave succour to the ailing virtuoso violinist and composer Wieniawski, when in his last months. Her correspondence with Tchaikovsky began in 1876, when she requested some violin and piano arrangements from the composer of his own works, writing to him: ‘… I ask you to believe this literally, that with your music I live more lightly and more pleasantly’. Thus ensued an extraordinary relationship which gave solace, succour and no little fantasy to both parties, in over 1000 existing letters written over 14 years. They begin just prior to Tchaikovsky’s short-lived and utterly disastrous marriage and end abruptly in 1890 when von Meck seems to have had serious financial issues. The correspondence provides a fascinating insight into Tchaikovsky’s daily life and thoughts on everything from love, marriage and religion to thoughts on his fellow Russian composers and indeed forays into his own compositional processes.

By the time von Meck’s allowance had ceased Tchaikovsky was already an internationally famous composer and earning more than enough money to provide for a comfortable life-style. He had also started work on a sixth symphony, a final work to cap his career as a composer and to be dedicated to the Tsar. But, as the composer himself wrote to his nephew ‘Bob’ Davydov in 1893:

You know I destroyed a symphony I had been composing and just partly orchestrated in the autumn … While on my travels I had the idea for another symphony, this time with a programme, but with a programme that will be an enigma to all—let them guess. The symphony will be entitled A Programme Symphony (No 6) … The programme itself will be suffused with subjectivity, and not infrequently during my travels, while composing it in my head, I wept a great deal. Upon my return I sat down to write the sketches, and the work went so furiously and quickly that in less than four days the first movement was completely ready, and the remaining movements already clearly outlined in my head. The third movement is already half-done. The form of this symphony will have much that is new, and by the way, the finale will not be a noisy allegro, but on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can’t imagine what bliss I feel, being convinced that my time is not yet passed, and I can still work.

This substitute Sixth Symphony, the one we now know as the ‘Pathétique’, Op 74 was written in January and February 1893 and orchestrated that summer. It also contained a substitute dedication—the Tsar being replaced by ‘Bob’ Davydov, with whom the composer had apparently become infatuated some years previously. The idea of a secret programme and the fact that Tchaikovsky died a little over a week after the symphony’s first performance on 28 October 1893, possibly of cholera, is the point at which all sorts of dubious revelations, half-truths and conspiracy theories take their cue. Was an affair with a teenage scion of the Imperial family discovered and Tchaikovsky offered the choice of ‘Siberia or Suicide’ by the Tsar himself? Was he tried by a secret court of his old colleagues from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in order that the honour of the school be preserved? Did his brother Modest urge him to drink the un-boiled, choleric Saint Petersburg water to save the family’s reputation or were sexual practices with male prostitutes to blame? Did he even die of cholera, given the strictures in place during cholera epidemics at the time and the treatment of Tchaikovsky’s body after death? All of these questions are still routinely squabbled over by experts around the globe.

The fact that the symphony was clearly intended as a valedictory piece by Tchaikovsky does not necessarily make it his requiem or the harbinger of his death any more than a number of elegiac works he composed previously might. In fact, it is clear from his letters of 1893 that he was more often than not in a relatively happy state of mind, writing to friends and colleagues that this symphony was his finest work and of his pride in having composed such a piece. The debate over the symphony and his death rages on and on, and will most likely never find a satisfactory conclusion. R.J. Wiley’s summation of the situation among the yet disagreeing commentators bears a health warning of its own that remains relevant today:

The polemics over his death have reached an impasse … Rumour attached to the famous dies hard: Paganini’s pact with the devil, Salieri’s poison. As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out …

In contrast to Tchaikovsky’s rather troubled childhood, Felix Mendelssohn appears to have cruised through his early years, by virtue of a wealthy and cultured upbringing, parents who were happy for their son to pursue a musical career and, of course, immense natural talent which led him to meet many of the most illustrious composers of the day while still in his teenage years. The Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op 21 was composed in 1826 by the 17-year-old Felix, inspired by family readings of the Shakespeare play in the translation by his distant relation, August Schlegel one of the progenitors of the German Romantic movement and pre-eminent translator of Shakespeare into the German language. Originally conceived as a piano duet, the fully orchestrated version received its first public performance in Stettin in 1827. The Overture is a brilliant little summation of the play, replete with mysterious opening, the evocation of scurrying fairies, the Duke’s hunting horn and the long brays accompanying Bottom’s transformation into an ass. The consequent incidental music, written almost 16 years later, includes one of the most oft-played and recognisable pieces in the whole of the classical repertoire—the Wedding March.

M Ross © 2010

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