Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor “Pathétique” [45:58]
Romeo and Juliet [20:33]
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit
rec. June 1990, St Eustache, Montreal
DECCA 430 507-2 [66:54]
In the 1990s, when I was in my early teenage years and first getting into classical music, it was all on tape and I had decided that Tchaikovsky was my favourite composer. I was saving up for my first ever CD player, and was keen to upgrade to better, less hissy recordings of all my favourites. It was also the early days of Classic FM, back when they more commonly played complete works and new CDs. I vividly remember being bowled over by hearing them broadcast this performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and thinking that this was definitely the performance I wanted to buy on CD, once I’d saved up enough pocket money for a CD player and my first CDs.
I never did get round to it, though. I bought my CD player (I still have it!) but my tastes moved on and I never found the Dutoit performance I had so enjoyed. When I did finally get around to buying my Tchaikovsky Pathétique, my local record shop (remember those?) had Pletnev’s Virgin Classics performance with the Russian National Orchestra on discount, so I bought that instead. It is, therefore, fascinating for me to finally hear the Dutoit performance again, thirty years later, brought to life again by Presto Classics in one of their editions.
It’s still very good but, as is often the way, not quite as great as I remembered it. Dutoit conducts the symphony with great love and, critically in this work, a sense of drama. The way he shapes the first movement’s “love theme”, for example, ebbs and flows with every nuance of the drama, giving the theme added poignancy. It helps that the violin sound is different for each of the theme’s appearances, and that it’s played with such caressing beauty every time. The drama of the development section is appropriately volcanic, with molten brass sound that cuts through the texture, and that’s also a feature of the third movement march, which is fantastically exciting. The second movement moves with purpose and a slight tinge of melancholy, while the strong sound of the finale is full of passion and surging drama. The depthless melancholy of the first theme gives way to heart-stopping beauty in the descending, major-key second theme, before the desperate hopelessness of the final bars.
So, yes; it’s great. In comparison with some of its, competitors, however, it lacks that final edge of drama. Outside of the march, which is probably the strongest movement, I wanted a bit more edge and bite, especially in that first movement’s development section. Dutoit is definitely good here, but Pletnev is even finer. In fact, in all of his performances of the Pathétique, Pletnev really sets the standard for drama, passion and dark beauty of a peculiarly Russian kind. One thing this disc definitely does have going for it, however, is the wonderful Decca sound. It’s one of those lovely recordings they made with Dutoit in the Montreal church of Saint Eustache, and its clarity and bloom are good enough to wallow in.
Romeo and Juliet isn’t as successful. It’s soft-focused throughout, so that the fight music doesn’t really catch fire, and the Montagues and Capulets sound as if they’re having a tiff rather than an all-out conflict. Nor does the love music really surge in the way that it ought to. The overture only ever really acts as a filler on a disc, but you’ll find it done better by the likes of Sian Edward in Liverpool or Pappano in Rome.
Listening to this disc felt like closing a loop for me, and I’ll keep coming back to it because the Pathétique is a performance of very high quality, but I’m glad I bought Pletnev’s in the 1990s.