Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
WORKS: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
PERFORMER: French National Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
A quarter of a century on from his ever-vivid Pathétique with the Philharmonia, Muti remains a bel canto master of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic song. His shaping of the outer movements’ great second-subject melodies remains an object lesson in how much rubato to apply and when (Tchaikovsky gives the instructions, for the most part, and Muti simply brings them to supple life). He also judges to perfection the degree of singing rubato needed to energise the strings. So why does the performance seem lighter and less intense than back in 1979? The timings indicate a slower burn; it doesn’t feel that way, except in the coda of the 5/4 waltz, in which all the grace is sapped, and quite convincingly, by a depressed dying fall. Part of the problem may be that, as with some of Abbado’s more recent performances, the emotion now comes across as applied rather than felt. And although this is one of the finest offerings from Naïve’s recent selection of live French National Orchestra performances, with every nuance and articulation keenly observed right from the brooding opening bars, there’s still a touch of glassiness about the orchestral sound – something you never feel with more extreme recent contenders like Gergiev with the Kirov (Philips) and the controversial Mikko Franck with a surprisingly feral Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Ondine). Muti offers a golden mean by comparison, but still not quite at the level of Mravinsky, the unsurpassable example of how to blend passion with precision in this intricately wrought masterpiece. David Nice