Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor (Pathétique); Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Symphony No. 6 in B minor (Pathétique); Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor
PERFORMER: Vladimir Horowitz (piano)NBC SO/Arturo Toscanini
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110807 AAD mono
This Pathétique is proof that music does not need to be sumptuously recorded or even accurate to be enthralling. In this 1941 recording the balance is too close and the sustained notes have a quavery ‘flutter’ that even the most sophisticated digital restoration techniques cannot eradicate. In other words it sounds like a B-movie soundtrack. But Toscanini’s performance is enough to dismiss such mundane considerations out of hand.

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The first movement is unevenly paced but the furious, headlong plunge into despair packs an emotional charge that is quite devastating. In the third movement he unleashes a demonic tempo that has the brass skittering all over the place but the sheer violence of the performance is palpable. Just when it seems as though the music must burst from its seams it appears to get yet faster, louder, and more frenzied. It is a credit to the recording engineers of the time that they caught this mesmeric event with a dynamic range only a fraction of that available today. No wonder the audience clapped before the finale.

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With Horowitz, the Piano Concerto is somewhat dreamy. No lack of technique, but a performance with luxuriously spread chords and a lazy co-ordination between soloist and orchestra that makes a typical modern performance seem antiseptic in its precision. If it is not as thrilling as the symphony, it is no less interesting as a period piece. With that in mind, the booklet notes are terrible, with a poorly edited commentary on the concerto, no discussion of the symphony, and numerous technical notes that are misleading about both the origin of the recordings and their restoration. Christopher Lambton