Recording of the Week,
Teodor Currentzis conducts Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony
If you've heard any of Teodor Currentzis's previous recordings with his ensemble MusicAeterna then you'll know that he is never content just to go along with whatever might be deemed the “traditional” view of a particular piece. This is certainly true of his latest release, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (popularly known as the Pathétique).
His approach becomes clear immediately: after a dolorous bassoon solo (accompanied by sonorous double basses), the violas enter with a fabulously crepuscular tone, and then their sforzando chord comes stabbing out of the gloom, wringing every last drop of expression out of the phrase. This heightened emotional turmoil is indicative of the whole performance, and by the time we reached the turbulent section about halfway into the first movement, I was already exhausted just listening to it! The attack of the strings in this Allegro vivo section is astonishingly aggressive; the cellos and basses can be heard furiously chugging away underneath, with some powerful brass.
It would be wrong of me to imply, however, that the entire symphony is like this, for there are moments of beauty and stillness. The tender melody in the first movement that comes before the section I just mentioned is full of ecstatic warmth (including an introverted yet affecting clarinet solo), with Currentzis giving the phrases the space they need to bloom without letting the pacing sag. Similarly, the second movement is enjoyably graceful, with refined cellos giving way to some classy, poised woodwind playing.
Of all the movements, it was the third that perhaps surprised me the most. Based on Currentzis's tendency to apply maximum pressure to the excitement button, I was expecting it to be super-fast and to hurtle along at the kind of breakneck speed that conductors such as Valery Gergiev sometimes deploy. On the contrary, much against my expectations, Currentzis's tempo is relatively measured, and much more controlled than I had anticipated.
Initially, I was sceptical, and wondered how he was going to make this movement as rousing as I know it can be. But then, as I listened, I realised that the fervour doesn’t have to derive from a dangerously swift tempo: it can come not only from the absolute precision of every single orchestra player, but also from the weight of the accents that this relatively deliberate tempo allows. There’s a palpably visceral thrill to every repeated downbow from the strings, and a pleasing rasp to the bass trombone that makes the descending brass scales at the end of the movement exceedingly satisfying.
The last movement strikes just the right balance between pained angst and impassioned ardour, with some meltingly divine playing from the strings and the trombones. It’s in the last few pages, though, where this performance really edges out in front: the final time that the main theme comes around, it is accompanied by the sound of (extremely low) hand-stopped horn notes, and I was astounded at how Currentzis makes them snarl, sizzle, and growl like no other performance I can recall. The final section is even more restless than usual, and Currentzis refuses to let go of the pathos until the very end, with throbbing double basses heaving beneath surging phrases from the upper strings.
Of course, everyone’s tastes are different, and I understand if this sounds like it might all be a bit too much to take! But, for all its individual quirks, it must certainly be one of the most tumultuous, breathtaking, and electrifying recordings of this piece that I have heard in quite some time, and I would recommend it very highly.