tchaikovsky symphony bernstein

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Pathétique, Op.74
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 16 August 1986, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Reviewed as download
Deutsche Grammophon 419 604-2 [58]

On the morning of 16 August 1986, the musicians of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra assembled at Avery Fischer Hall to begin a studio recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony with Leonard Bernstein. As was nearly always the case, the conductor was running late and when he did finally turn up, was in no hurry to begin. Looking tired and unwell (his stomach was protruding alarmingly, probably the result of the cancer which so blighted his final years), he nonetheless insisted upon his usual routine before a first rehearsal of initially speaking to many of the players individually about personal and other non-musical matters. However, the orchestra was not worried – after all, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is a standard repertory piece and one with which the New York Philharmonic had performed many times in concert with Bernstein throughout their long association together, plus they had already recorded it twice before with the Maestro. They were merely expecting a couple of brief run-throughs before the red light was switched on for the recording to then be set down, so were slightly surprised when Lenny finally mounted the platform and announced, “I was up until 4.30 last night studying the score of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony – and I think I have finally realised how it should really go…”

What followed was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that has divided opinion in a way no other recording of the work has done before or since – many believe it to be one of the greatest Pathétiques ever committed to disc, while the remainder think it is probably the worst. What is indisputable however is that it is one of the longest, with perhaps the slowest final movement of all. To put this in perspective, Mravinsky in his various accounts takes a few seconds under ten minutes for the last movement; Bernstein takes almost eighteen minutes in this recording, where the whole symphony clocks in just under the hour mark. At the time of its release, there was more than one wag who wondered if Lenny was being paid by the minute with this recording, so when the opportunity came to review it on download, either by mp3 or FLAC, I was keen to revisit it to see if my own views had changed since I had last heard it.

I have to say that it is very well played by the NYPO, not just in execution but also in their dedication and willingness to follow their maestro not just over the edge of the abyss, but headlong into it and beyond where no orchestra and conductor have gone before in this piece, with full and rich sound from DG, whether on compact disc or both downloadable formats. When I reviewed this conductor’s complete set of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the NYPO (made for CBS-Sony), even though it was made over a significant number of years (1958 to 1974 to be precise), a recurring characteristic I noticed of Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky was one of volatility. In the (CBS) Fifth Symphony in particular, as one musical phrase virtually slowed down to a grinding halt, the next would speed off like a bat out of hell. The earlier Pathétiques were far more conventional and give no indication to what was to come in 1986, which has a first movement that is about five minutes longer than usual and a fourth some seven minutes longer than the norm. Even the third movement, annotated Allegro molto vivace, is slower than we are accustomed to, making it sound more effortful than usual, as if marching on through life with gritted teeth – it is certainly not ‘Allegro’ (fast) or ‘Vivace’ (lively). Perhaps that was the intention, for Bernstein makes no attempt to hide the fact that he views this work as an “act of dying”, a bit like his view of the Mahler Ninth Symphony. This is all wrong of course – Tchaikovsky would not have known this was to be his last symphony when composing it. There was no ominous man dressed in black commissioning a work commemorating the dead, as with Mozart; nor was there the ill health and very obvious tragic events which blighted Mahler’s later life either, but I suppose it is another view of this masterpiece.

The miracle is that it all hangs together – certainly in the first movement, the extremes of tempo changes really shouldn’t, but somehow, they do – just. And that is the point – some parts of the symphony respond very well to Bernstein’s daring; for example, the silences between the opening phrases of the symphony are as deafening as the great ,soaring, string-dominated climaxes of the final movement are searingly intense; however other parts just seem to drag or, as in the above-mentioned third movement, fly in the face of the instructions in the score. Perhaps it is too easy to label it ‘Mahlovsky’ but that is what Lenny makes it all sound like, even if he does almost persuade you that this is how the music should be done. For me, it is probably one of those recordings, like the similarly slow Klemperer Mahler Seventh Symphony, that you need to hear at least once in your lifetime or, as in my case now, twice, just so say you have heard it. My own conclusion (on this occasion) is that I just do not think it contains enough Tchaikovsky to want to hear it much more often, even if it is almost a unique experience and almost the slowest Pathétique on record. The only other recording I can think of with which to compare this late Bernstein is even slower and even more individual: Sergio Celibidache’s 1992 recording, set down live from concerts with the Munich Philharmonic (now available on Warner Classics).

Indeed, comparing the two recordings side by side is fascinating and I am sure that I will not be the only person to be quite astonished to learn that, even though Bernstein is four minutes longer than Celibidache in the last movement, he is still a minute faster overall in the whole symphony than the Romanian maestro. That said, in spite of both interpretations being longer than usual, the character of each of the performances are very different. In the first movement, Celibidache is far more successful than Bernstein in consistently convincing me of his slow speeds, mainly because of his less volatile approach, which means there is a greater sense of unity, as well as his ability to use the slow tempos to tease out more light and shade in his reading, rather than just the unremittingly despair of Bernstein. A good example of this is the way Celibidache treats the great, romantic second subject which initially is very hushed, heart-breaking in its sadness, before blossoming into something immensely grand and tragic, so different from the more Mahlerian angst conjured by Bernstein at this point, or indeed the more romantic hue of Karajan, or the red-bloodied passion of Mravinsky, to reference a couple of other great interpreters of the Pathétique.

In the middle movements, Bernstein is somewhat more conventional in his pacing than Celibidache – I didn’t find much that that was especially of note in his interpretation of these, perhaps only the general character which, emphasised by the slightly broader than usual speeds, seems to suggest a certain world-weariness. Celibidache is slower still, keener to seek out greater colour from the music and, in the third movement, sparkle (the ‘vivace’ of the score’s instructions) too, something conspicuously lacking in Bernstein’s reading, while at no point did I consider the music-making dragging or slow.

If in the final movement, Celibidache’s thirteen-minute journey is zippy compared to the five-minute-longer epic dirge of Bernstein, he is still an astonishing three minutes slower than the aforementioned benchmarks of Karajan and Mravinsky. However, unlike Bernstein’s long death-march to the grave, Celibidache’s choice of tempos here makes it sound more in keeping with the broadly etched movements which came before it. Once again with the Romanian conductor, the mood is more of great sadness, tinged with nobility – the coda is especially well done with those bass chords on the final page sighing with dignity as the music ebbs away; it caps a very distinguished performance indeed, where all the slow tempos are not only justified, but also help produce a reading of genuine greatness and individuality.

In summary, listening to Bernstein’s late recording alongside Celibidache’s was a curious experience and I cannot help but conclude that in comparison, Bernstein’s vision is both overwrought and overheated, Tchaikovsky as seen through the prism of late Mahler. It is a famous recording and one all readers should explore at least once during their lifetimes, but for me, Celibidache’s Pathétique is the greater achievement and musically is much more satisfying. You owe it to yourself to hear both.

Lee Denham

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