Too Much Tchaikovsky

Standard Time

It may seem like I seldom devote space here to repertoire favorites, e.g., Top Twenty World’s Greatest Concertos.

Why is that?

Well, some people are heavily invested in the Top Twenty thing, and they make it work. I’m not, and I don’t. Over the years, I’ve tried to emphasize new “serious” music, and whenever possible, I opt to consider new releases independently of back-catalog competition. My guiding principle is, you can’t stick your toe in the same river twice. Artists change, audiences change, cultures change. The notes on the page may stay the same, but we don’t. Bring on the new, whether it’s tunes or those who whistle ‘em.

This week, though, it’s mix-and-match: new releases of familiar music by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Mendelssohn, and others. Nothing obscure! No “forgotten gems”! Genuine repertoire favorites! I’ll even make a few comparisons.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (“Pathétique”). [1] Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko. BPHR, 2019; SACD, downloads. [2] MusicAeterna, Teodor Currentzis. Sony, 2017; CD, downloads.

The Berlin Philharmonic is celebrating its appointment of new music director Kirill Petrenko by releasing a live concert recording of the “Pathétique,” which comes in a deluxe 36-page hardbound edition housing a hybrid SACD and passcodes for hi-res audio files, plus notes on the music and on Petrenko’s ascension to the throne. It must be meant as a keepsake, because the book measures 6⅛” x 9⅝”, so you can’t easily shelve it with LPs or CDs.

I didn’t originally intend to review this alongside Teodor Currentzis’s 2017 release for Sony. But having listened to both, I could not resist. Petrenko’s interpretation flies in the face of a decades-long series of “Pathétique” recordings that emphasized heart-wrenching autobiographical drama, often in such stark terms that one could imagine listeners left barely able to form words or choke down a little soup. Each new recording in that mold was hailed with superlatives: it was “breathtaking,” a “Sixth for our time,” and so on.

Now here is a reading that brings out the lyricism and delicacy of Tchaikovsky’s creation in at least equal measure. It remains absolute music at all times, never veering into Hitchcock territory or touching on any of Dante’s circles of hell. As usual, the Berliners bring considerable technical skill and sensitivity to the task. The recorded sound is spacious, detailed, and well-balanced. It’s a virtual MRI of the score, as befits this suave, utterly refined presentation.

The problem? In strictly emotional terms, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth takes no prisoners. Either you bring that sensibility to the task and shape your performance accordingly, or you risk ending up with . . . Mantovani. Or Samuel Beckett, which oddly enough was the taste I found in my mouth: on first hearing, it seemed that Petrenko offered the final movement as a corpse already drained of blood. I kept waiting for the music to begin, whereas existentially it was already over.

That approach can be effective. There’s a case to be made for the fourth movement as exhaustion, as the collapse that follows a burst of false hope. Yet when I listened to what Currentzis and his intrepid band had wrought, I had to reconsider. They give us the finale as a primal cry, despairing but determined to be heard. It’s profoundly human, and the sound of it sears your brain. So let’s talk about that sound for a moment.

Although Sony’s engineering for Currentzis is both impactful and transparent, it’s biased toward impact: this is no MRI. I found myself actually repelled by one passage in the last movement: a low [written] C# in the horns that enters repeatedly toward the end of the work. Marked ff and “gestopft” (“stopped,” a hand position that can produce a nasal, compressed sound), it’s prominent in Currentzis’ recording but can barely be heard in Petrenko’s. This sound, along with some aggressive string entrances, certainly contributes to the pathos in the performance. (I suspect its power also derives from the adroit manipulation of sliders in the control room. Writing for Gramophone, Peter Quantrill detected other studio tricks.)

Did Tchaikovsky want the note to sound that ugly? We can be sure he wanted it heard. The composer introduces it as an accompaniment motive in the woodwinds in m.2, then transfers it to horns 90 measures in, when the principal theme is recapitulated. Returning again, as the coda gets underway, it’s lower, darker, and much more acidic in tone; you could say it carries a depth charge.

My experience with Currentzis’ stopped horns forced me to revisit Petrenko, and that led to greater respect for Petrenko’s achievement. Maybe he’s the revolutionary here, offering a gentler means of understanding the “Pathétique,” minus the now-customary raw histrionics. I could quibble (obviously) with either performance, but both are exceptional and well worth knowing.

Handel: Concerti grossi, op. 6 (1–6). Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bernard Forck. Pentatone, 2019; SACD, downloads.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) spent most of his career in London, writing and presenting opera and oratorio. But he was well-versed in all genres, including orchestral concertos. Opus 6 is unusual only in that Handel wrote these 12 concertos all at once and with relatively little borrowing. He performed them in his 1739–40 oratorio season, during intervals and under his own direction. Musically they follow the example of Corelli, utilizing a cosmopolitan blend of styles, something new at every turn.

This album includes only the first six (coming soon: vol. 2). Here are two excerpts from No. 3, the opening Larghetto and a more lively Polonaise:

Top-notch performances from one of the most respected early-music groups in the world, and top-notch sound from Pentatone, of course.

Holst: The Planets. Elgar: Enigma Variations. Bergen PO, Andrew Litton. BIS, 2019; SACD, downloads.

For me the highlight here is the Elgar Variations, a work I confess to knowing only superficially prior to reviewing Litton’s new release. The Elgar was recorded in June 2013, the Holst in February 2017. Meanwhile the conductor had moved on from his 12-year tenure (2003–15) as Bergen’s music director. Litton is now “emeritus” or “laureate” conductor of several orchestras, including those of Bournemouth, Dallas, Bergen, and Colorado. On the evidence of his recordings, he’s an A-list conductor, in spite of his never having helmed an A-list band.

Each variation is dedicated to one of Elgar’s friends; at the heart of the Enigma lies “Nimrod,” offered below in its entirety. Here, let’s sample a bit of Variation 11. It’s a snapshot of Dan, the bulldog that belonged to George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral:

And now some of Variation 13: Elgar indicated with asterisks “the name of a lady. . .on a sea voyage,” bound for Australia. Elsewhere he described the dedicatee, Lady Mary Lygon, as “a most angelic person.”

Nicely captured by producer Ingo Petry and his engineers. Useful liner notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler too, although he asserts that “Musical representations of personal friends are uncommon.” They are not, but they seldom turn out as well as Elgar’s did.

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare. [1] Toronto SO, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos, 2019; SACD, downloads. [2] Swedish Radio SO, Daniel Harding. Harmonia Mundi, 2016; CD, downloads. [w/ Rameau, Suite de Hippolyte et Aricie]

Tastiest morsel in Davis’s feast is not the Symphonie but the 15-minute Fantaisie, presumably intended as a lively curtain-raiser. It steals the show, given Sir Andrew’s pedestrian traversal of the main course. He seldom finds the pulse of the larger work, which depicts a young man’s feverish, drug-addled fixation on a woman. Here is the moment when music representing that idée fixe first appears:

And here is the same moment from my favorite recent recording—Daniel Harding’s, for Harmonia Mundi:

Harding delivers the twitchy, deeply neurotic goods; Davis comes off as sturdy and dependable.

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra; Ein Heldenleben. Oslo PO, Vasily Petrenko. Lawo, 2019; CD, downloads.

As with Berlioz’s Symphonie, of the making of new Strauss albums there is no end. (Anyone interested in a short stack of misguided Alpensinfonien?) Yet, even when I compared these Oslo performances with classic Chicago (Reiner) and Berlin (Karajan) recordings, I still liked them. Vasily Petrenko—late of Liverpool, and no relation to Kirill—has been up to excellent things in Norway. His interpretations are dynamic in the best sense: each phrase, period, and section contributes to interlocking structures that ration out, then ratchet up the intensity. Arrival points register firmly but in a way that heightens the momentum. That’s exciting. Here’s some of Heldenleben:

These are way more fun than what’s currently on offer from Søndergård or Jurowski.

Mendelssohn: Overtures. (“Mendelssohn in Birmingham, vol. 5”) City of Birmingham SO, Edward Gardner. Chandos, 2019; SACD, downloads.

Some of these overtures appeared as filler in vols. 1–4 of Gardner’s “Mendelssohn in Birmingham” series, but it was a neat idea to repackage them this way. Old favorites like The Hebrides and Ein Sommernachtstraum roost comfortably beside relatively rarities like the “Trumpet” Overture and Overture to “Athalie.” Here’s the opening of Die schöne Melusine:

Recognize those lovely rising arpeggio figures? They depict the water sprite Melusine frolicking in her element. Wagner stole that music for the opening of Das Rheingold. (In his tribute to Lady Mary Lygon, Elgar committed more gentlemanly theft by quoting from another Mendelssohn overture, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt.) We close with a bit of the Overture to “Paulus,” which references an old hymn tune as an indirect homage to Bach:

All of which bring up issue(s) of borrowing, adapting, stealing, and quoting, which we’ll survey next time. Happy listening, folks.