Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique); Serenade for Strings

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique); Serenade for Strings
PERFORMER: Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Willem Mengelberg
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110885
The Music & Arts box claims that Koussevitzky’s live recordings of Tchaikovsky symphonies have not been issued before – not quite true, as the Pathétique did appear some years ago as part of AS Disc’s Koussevitzky Edition. The sound there was clearer than Music & Arts’s mastering, which comes across as rather muffled. As a performance, it’s far more flexible than Koussevitzky’s 1930 studio recording, though it doesn’t have the single-mindedness of that classic version, and takes off only in the last movement. The Fifth Symphony is much more gripping, and again there’s more rubato than in the studio recording: the slowing-down for the second subject in the first movement would be indulgent if it weren’t done with an artistry that’s hard to resist. A pity that the sound in the Fourth Symphony is so inferior – it wasn’t meant to be recorded, and was captured on a microphone which had been hauled up to the ceiling to keep it out of the way. The quiet music is virtually inaudible, the balance very strange and, although there is an energetic performance going on somewhere in the distance, this is really only for the serious fan. Koussevitzky’s flexibility sounds almost metronomic compared to Mengelberg’s pulling-around of the Pathétique: if there’s a drop of expression to be got from a phrase, he squeezes out a pint. A lot of it is wilful – I do wish that the 5/4 quasi-waltz would settle down – but the march builds up a good head of steam, and the legato string playing makes the melodic line absolutely seamless. This is also a benefit in the Serenade, though you’ll have to put up with (or enjoy, if that’s your pleasure) the characteristic sliding between notes. It’s a world away from the sound of the Czech Philharmonic of the Fifties and Sixties, well restored by the Supraphon engineers (though it’s a pity the company doesn’t take as much trouble over the English translations in its booklets). There’s a real individuality in the woodwind and brass especially, and the strings are warm and strong, but never sentimental, as you sometimes feel with Mengelberg.