About this Recording
8.110865 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique' (Furtwangler) (1938)

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Liebestod


The juxtaposition of Tchaikovsky and Wagner makes for intriguing comparisons. The Russian composer’s first major point of contact came when Wagner visited St Petersburg in 1863 to conduct performances of some of Beethoven’s symphonies as well as orchestral excerpts from his own operas. Tchaikovsky much admired his fellow composer’s understanding of form and structure as well as the quality of the playing and originality of Beethoven’s symphonic thought in such sympathetic and inspired hands. When it came to Wagner’s own music however, this initially favourable impression crumbled. Attendance at the première of the complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876 confirmed major reservations. Aside from his amusing descriptions of not being received into the Master’s presence together with the physical inconveniences of excessive heat, discomfort in the auditorium and difficulties in obtaining something to eat, Tchaikovsky remained baffled by the whole apparatus of the Gesamtkunstwerk. He did, however, profess admiration for Wagner’s instrumentation and the creation of a landmark work of art, albeit one that he believed to be over-complex and would not hurry to revisit in toto, concluding “It’s all killingly boring! How many hundreds of thousands of times nicer is Sylvia!”


On first encounter with Tristan und Isolde in Berlin in 1883, Tchaikovsky continued to be confounded by the predominance of the orchestra, non-lyrical vocal lines and the extended psychological scenario. They allowed little room for the more decorative conventions of recitative, aria, ensemble and dance that he regarded as necessary formal ingredients of his preferred French-influenced operatic style.


In his moves away from decorative towards symphonic development, Tchaikovsky subconsciously absorbed a significant amount from Wagner, particularly the Liszt-filtered graphic element. The storm music in Francesca da Rimini and Swan Lake resounds with a chromatic turmoil, unthinkable without flying Dutchmen and Valkyries and his frequent representation of Fate as a descending scale, usually on the brass, is as implacable as Wotan’s spear. The deployment of leitmotif as a symphonic resource, most obviously associated with fate, is in many ways the most backhanded compliment Tchaikovsky could pay Wagner, who apart from one early example steered clear of the symphony altogether.


Rarely has there been such a blatant passing of potentially mutually sympathetic composers by each other as ships in the night. Ironic indeed that the Pathétique Symphony and Tristan share a radical and iconic advancement of form, structure, technique and compositional maturity to express the most personal subject matter at the most universal level. Not until Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (a work much influenced by the Pathétique) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were the Austro-German and Russian musical melting-pots of life, love and death to be so obsessively and oppressively stirred again, this time with even more apocalyptic resonance.


Furtwängler’s 1938 studio recording of the Pathétique for HMV, together with the Berlin Philharmonic Beethoven Fifth of 1937, has long remained an evergreen of the catalogue. It was recorded at a traumatic time when the Nazi stranglehold on German life in general and the arts in particular had reached a peak of intensity. No longer holding any formal conducting post and rapidly losing peer contacts at home and abroad, he was also contending with political machinations that involved the engagement of Karajan as a potential rival with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Staatsoper. Some past commentators have seen these difficulties played out against the backdrop of the symphony’s doom-laden programme, but the success of Furtwängler’s reading seems to lie more in his realisation of emotional intensity within the disciplined and controlled framework pertinently offered by the composer (and ignored at the conductor’s peril). Ever the master of inner logic, transition and organic growth, Furtwängler nurtures flexibility without exaggeration and profundity without hysteria. He is particularly astute in revealing Tchaikovsky’s now fully confident assimilation of the decorative element within a context of genuine symphonic development. The balletic grace and rhythmic innovation of the second movement is elegantly voiced, while the study in cumulative crescendo underlying the ensuing march is dynamic, compelling and free of histrionics.


With the added advantages of impressive sound quality for the time and virtuoso playing from a vintage Berlin Philharmonic, it was a copper-bottomed winner from the outset. Both Albert Coates and Oskar Fried had recorded the symphony prior to Furtwängler, but with considerably more subjectivity and less distinguished orchestral playing. Koussevitsky, another conductor with special Russian sympathies, had also set down a reading with the Boston Symphony. The plush American playing certainly represents more of a rival to the Berlin orchestra, but although the reading is colourful, it is not especially subtle, with the excitement somewhat superficial. Mengelberg in Amsterdam was characteristically more volatile and free, certainly less of a foreigner abroad and in that respect drew closer to the authentic raw Russian climate when Mravinsky swept into Western European consciousness from Leningrad.


Perhaps not surprisingly, the hottest contemporary rival turned out to be Toscanini. Not his war-time Philadelphia or 1947 NBC studio recordings, but a coruscating live performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra recorded on 29th October 1938 at exactly the same time as Furtwängler’s sessions took place in Berlin (the whole concert also featuring Bach and Haydn is available on Naxos 8.110725). Toscanini had given the Italian première of the work, but had not conducted it for over forty years. It was the only numbered symphony of Tchaikovsky in his repertoire and the performance came at an acutely emotional time for him, both in terms of his international stand against Fascism, but more especially with regard to his personal involvement with Ada Mainardi. Now that so many more of his letters have been published, it is remarkable to read his candid admission to her of weeping openly while conducting the performance, which mirrors the composer’s own professed state while composing the piece. It also points to an unexpected reversal of expectation regarding the trajectory of the two conductors’ performances. Curious that throughout their careers, these great masters of the podium reflected the same fundamental, if grudging, mutual respect for each other as did Tchaikovsky and Wagner, but similarly so frequently misunderstood their respective interpretative stances. How fortunate that present day listeners can continue to make the comparison.


Ian Julier



Mark Obert-Thorn


Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor’, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.


There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially-released restorations.



Producer’s Note


The sources for the present transfers were the best portions of the best sides from four pre-war U.S. Victor “Gold” label shellac pressings and a British HMV for the Tchaikovsky and four Victor “Golds” and a French Disque Gramophone pressing for the Wagner. Some defects are inherent in the masters and could not be unobtrusively removed. The rhythmic, repeated noises which may be heard during certain accelerandi (such as that in the development of the first movement of the Pathétique) are not pressing thumps but rather appear to be the conductor himself stamping his foot in time with the music.


Mark Obert-Thorn

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