Tchaikovsky is a composer to whom it has become slightly de rigeur to gaze at down your long academic nose, if I can put it that way. Simply because, in my opinion at least, his music is so fantastically accessible, which offends that school of modern musicians whose own efforts are not. His grasp of melody remains, arguably, second to none, and his orchestrations seem so flawless, so effortless, yet so rich. And I truly, madly, and deeply love his 6th symphony, the “Pathétique”.
Tchaikovsky wrote seven symphonies, and they can be quite readily divided into two groups, the ‘lightweights’ Nos 1, 2, 3, and ‘Manfred’, and the ‘heavyweights’ Nos 4, 5, and 6. Symphony No 6 was his last work, and he died, age 53, only nine days after conducting its premier. It is a colossal work, and stands close comparison to the recognized symphonic colossus of the 19th Century, Beethoven’s 9th. Both were compositional tours-de-force which make profound, lasting impressions on their listeners. Both enjoyed immediate enduring critical approval, although, interestingly enough, not at their actual premiers.
Indeed the structures of both works bear some comparison. Both begin with an elegiac, extended first movement, move on to a wonderfully melodic slow movement followed by a standout rhythmic and dynamic scherzo, and conclude with an astounding statement finale. But where Beethoven’s finale is majestic, uplifting, and extrovert, Tchaikovsky’s is foreboding, introspective, and wrenchingly emotional. It is truly, truly magnificent music.
Fortunately, we are blessed with many excellent recordings to choose from. The one which is most widely acclaimed is Evgeny Mravinsky’s reading with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and really, you cannot go wrong with it. Herbert von Karajan’s 1956 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is classy, but with a dated sound. Claudio Abbado with the Chicago Symphony, Valery Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Mariss Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic are all highly recommended modern recordings with great sound. Leonard Bernstein produced a stunning but idiosyncratic recording with the New York Philharmonic which sustains a deathly slow pace from the first bar that only Bernstein could get away with.
What is my own choice? Well, I must admit to a lasting love affair with Bernard Haitink’s recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. It is not perfect, but none of the others I have mentioned can claim to be either. For sure, there are going to be those who would argue that none of my choices should be on anybody’s recommended list. And that’s good. Because one of life’s great joys is seeking out unfamiliar recordings of this powerful work, hoping to unearth the one miracle like Kleiber’s Beethoven’s 5th.