Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op. 6 (1888)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 Pathétique (1893)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Markus Poschner
rec. 2021/2022, Auditorio Stelio Moro, RSI Lugano, Switzerland
Claves CD3104/05 [2 CDs: 86]

Despite his having cultivated an international reputation over the last twenty years, my experience of Markus Poschner has been limited exclusively to his conducting of the recordings in his Bruckner2024 series, so I was interested to hear his take on these, the last and greatest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies.

Before listening, I perused the notes and two things caught my eye: first, that the “urtext critical edition” of the Fifth used here was prepared by Prof. Dr. Christoph Flamm and aims to reproduce as nearly as possible the score of the Hamburg premiere, which was subject to various cuts and changes by the composer – even though those changes were not retained in its subsequent publication – and is based on the great Dutch conductor Mengelburg’s copy. (Apparently Flamm has also prepared an urtext edition of the score of the Sixth Symphony “which was not yet available at the time of this recording.”) Secondly, a concluding statement in Flamm’s note echoes the notes to Poschner’s recording of Bruckner’s Sixth: “Over the years of Bruckner reception, his œuvre has been beset with epic breadth, much incense, and plenty of projected grand awesomeness, little or none of which actually stems from the musical text”. This kind of complaint always sets off alarm bells in my head; Prof. Flamm here advises conductors that when playing these two symphonies they should “try to abandon the triumphalist reading with its tonal opulence and orchestral exuberance…in favour of a more chamber-like clarity of sound and careful attention to orchestral details.” Nonetheless, I see that despite the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana normally comprising forty regular members, it is here augmented by “extra musicians”: twenty more strings, ten more wind instruments and two additional percussionists, suggesting that Poschner had no interest in undercooking the amplitude of Tchaikovsky’s sonorities. Furthermore, although we are told that we are hearing something closer to that Hamburg premiere, no details are provided, so without the benefit of scores or details, a comparison between the timings of individual movements here with other recordings on my shelves suggest absolutely nothing unusual about Poschner’s account of the Sixth, whereas the timings for his Fifth seem to indicate that he is either indulging in the penchant for fast speeds which, in my estimation, has marred some of his Bruckner recordings, or there are indeed cuts involved, especially with regard to the second Andante cantabile movement and the finale. Indeed, we are told that in response to criticism after the premiere, Tchaikovsky “immediately shortened the finale considerably” – hence, the two-and-a-half to three-minute disparity among the timings for the finale in these recordings:

Fifth Symphony

PoschnerKarajan EMIMravinskyOrmandyRozhdestvenskyShipwayHoneck

Sixth Symphony

PoschnerKarajan EMIMravinsky 1960Mravinsky 1982RozhdestvenskyCurrentzis

This is where this lowly reviewer – having indulged himself in creating some nice tables despite not having an accountant’s bone in his body – comes in and simply has to use his ears. As far as I can tell, via comparison with my new favourite version of the Fifth Symphony by Manfred Honeck (review), there is very little difference between their respective scores or indeed their way with the work in the first three movements. The immediacy of Poschner’s studio sound is apparent; he is obviously somewhat more closely recorded than is Honeck’s live performance, such that in the opening you hear the intake of breath by the clarinettist and bassoonist in the quiet first motto theme, while the Reference recording obviously has a more spacious ambience – but both enjoy excellent sonics. I find that Honeck is marginally more agogic, more inclined to accentuate the range of dynamics and is overall slightly better at generating cumulative tension; his approach is lither and nervier, whereas Poschner is steadier, more lyrical and makes more patent use of rubato – and yes, in line with the above comments, individual instrumental lines emerge more prominently, with leaner string tone, while the Pittsburgh orchestra makes a deeper, darker, more cushioned sound – but both are deeply satisfying and there is no shortage of excitement in Poschner’s direction, even if his orchestral sound is somewhat smaller.

Poschner has his excellent principal horn play his solo opening the slow movement rather more quickly than Honeck’s, whose dreamy, rapturous manner I find more engaging, even if it borders on the extreme – and that mostly accounts for the difference of a minute in timings rather than any cuts. Despite the generally lighter orchestral sound I remark upon above, there is no shortage of heft in the first climax exactly half way through, nor with the second crashing chord with drum roll at ten minutes – but Honeck makes even more of an impact.

In keeping with his manner in general, Poschner’s treatment of the three waltzes and the Trios in the  Scherzo is more relaxed than Honeck’s and I like how he seems to channel Viennese charm. Besides, as is so often the case with scherzos in general, there is very little difference in how various conductors handle the music; the form seems to dictate its own shape and sound.

The finale is a different matter. Again, Honeck is weightier in the portentous maestoso introduction by the lower strings but tempi are virtually identical up to the Allegro vivace section, in which Poschner is marginally brisker, but the cuts of the more discursive, ruminative passage and a repeated section come just over halfway through – and I have to admit that I like it; that lends a more compact aspect to the drive and direction of the finale and reduces the scope for any accusation of bombast. Hence, in Honeck’s account the coda begins at 9:34, whereas with Poschner it starts at 7:48 and is also condensed to a duration of 1:40, while Honeck’s coda lasts 2:20. As ever, timings are only part of the story, but in this case they do indicate interpretative differences of some consequence.

It is interesting that in his notes, while referring to Tchaikovsky’s pessimism and emotional and psychological ambiguity, Prof. Flamm remarks that during the composition of the Sixth, Tchaikovsky “was by no means planning his suicide” and cites the vitality of the Scherzo as contradicting any such belief. He also manages to buck what I perceive as the current trend by managing to write of the symphony’s character without making any reference to the composer’s struggle with his sexuality; he instead emphasises that its nihilistic conclusion is an indication of his “sincerity”, as opposed to the supposedly meretricious, manufactured optimism of the finale to the Fifth.

I miss the brooding intensity of Karajan’s and Currentzis’ openings in Poschner’s introduction to the Sixth Symphony – and, to leap forward, also the searing despair they delineate in those dreadful closing bars to the entire work, as the music spirals down into blackness; Poschner’s orchestra generates neither the stark bleakness of Currentzis nor the hushed emptiness evoked by Karajan’s BPO; Poschner’s sound in that dreadful coda is generally too healthy – but having said that, the diminuendo of the concluding chord is a thing of dark beauty and the intonation and steadiness of the double basses and growling bassoon are impressive. However, the martial spring of the ensuing Allegro – non troppo? –  in the first movement is a little too sprightly for my taste and the Andante second theme could unfold more broadly and affectionately; Poschner does not evince Currentzis’ soulfulness nor does the Szizzera Italiana have the BPO’s sumptuousness. The stormy middle section is much more than competent but not the most thrilling I know. Some very minor blips in the brass in the coda merited a re-take. Those observations are a paradigm for my view of the performance as a whole: a good, unexceptional account of no special distinction.

The ”wooden-legged-waltz” is played as instructed “con grazia” and quite quickly – if not as quickly as Currentzis, who invests it with more verve and whose recorded sound has greater opulence. The Mendelssohnian scherzo is likewise neatly executed, although Karajan implements more dynamic contrast and elicits more jubilation in those scurrying passages with brass fanfares. Regarding the finale, I refer you to the opening of the preceding paragraph.

To sum up, while I find the new, abridged finale of the Fifth Symphony to be an interesting success and the performances of both symphonies here to be satisfactory, neither dislodges my established favourite recordings.

The double CD set is neatly packaged in a folding cardboard wallet. Unfortunately, running to just over a normal CD length, it is priced for two CDs; two symphonies are offered, of course, but a bonus or two such as an overture, fantasia or tone poem, would have been welcome.

Ralph Moore

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