About this Recording
8.110885 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 (Mengelberg) (1938-1941)

Great Conductors: Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 'Pathetique' • Serenade for Strings

On 19th October 1893, three days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky wrote to Willem Kes, the founder and principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, to accept an invitation to conduct the orchestra there in March the following year. Six days later, however, the composer died, leaving Willem Mengelberg, who took over the direction of the orchestra in 1895, to advance the composer's fortunes both in Holland and internationally.

The new symphony formed part of the opening concert of the Russian Musical Society's symphonic season and was eagerly awaited by everyone in a city that particularly revered Tchaikovsky. Initial reaction, however, both on the part of the players themselves at the rehearsals and the musical cognoscenti, who thronged the hall, was unexpectedly ambivalent and muted. After the concert, Tchaikovsky expressed misgivings to his fellow composer Alexander Glazunov that the musicians had not liked the symphony, but this customary sense of immediate post-performance disappointment soon gave way to an appreciation that the work had puzzled rather than provoked active dislike. As with so many of his previous creations, the composer fully realised the fundamental quality of what he had written and very quickly regained the high ground convinced that he had never written anything better.

Whether the initial public bewilderment stemmed from the overtly personal nature of the piece or the groundbreaking structure and devices of the outer movements particularly, the composer himself was never to learn, but he did have time to reflect upon Rimsky-Korsakov's post-concert enquiry regarding a possible programme for the symphony. Having rebuffed too detailed a public expose of what lay behind the piece, Tchaikovsky responded positively to the generalised epithet of Pathetique, suggested by his brother Modest the day after the premiere. Whatever the subsequent vagaries and hesitations (the composer asked his publisher Jurgenson not to add the subtitle, but just to engrave a dedication to his close friend and nephew Vladimir (Bob) Davidov, the name Pathetique stuck, probably owing to active promotion by Modest, who coincidentally was also closely acquainted with Mengelberg.

In the early decades of the twentieth century the works of Richard Strauss, Mahler and Tchaikovsky were central to the Dutch conductor's repertoire and burgeoning career. Mengelberg's points of contact were personal and especially sympathetic in all three cases. The last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky remained works with which he maintained and developed a special affinity throughout his long career. Although he recorded the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra for Columbia in 1929 and 1928 respectively, with the waltz from the Serenade as a fill-up to the Fifth, the Sixth Symphony was not recorded commercially until 1938. This later Telefunken recording was set down very soon after, in 1941, just prior to the personnel changes imposed upon the orchestra after the Nazi occupation of Holland. There has been some debate over the years as to whether in fact Mengelberg only recorded the finale again owing to dissatisfaction about the relatively swift tempo of the earlier interpretation, which is some two minutes faster. Historical evidence and the matrix numbers would seem to argue conclusively that it was a completely new recording.

The extraordinarily wide and vivid dynamic range of the 1941 sound certainly supports the argument. Although the woodwind section as a whole is slightly recessed within the overall perspective, individual solos resound with the warmth and bloom characteristic of one of the most distinctive concert halls ever built. By this time of course, Mengelberg and his players knew instinctively from long experience how to balance to optimum benefit at every turn in this particular venue; a matter of crucial importance in a work such as the Pathetique that makes such consistently striking play of the contrast between string, wind and brass choirs. The quality of the result can be heard right at the start of the symphony with an unusually clear delineation of the cello and bass accompaniment of the bassoon solo. The composer's iconic representation of fate by the descending scale is immediately audible, ripe for development and colouring much of what follows.

In more general terms, however, Tchaikovsky's highly subjective musical language came custom-built for Mengelberg's special talents. The matching of interpretative flexibility to expressive content signals meticulously prepared scores and thorough, detailed rehearsal. As ever, the trick is to summon communal spontaneity in performance, which both the symphony and Serenade fully deliver. A salient example of the skill and success of this distinctive Mengelberg device are the three statements of the famous lyrical second subject material in the first movement of the symphony. Its first appearance, tender, muted, yet gently pleading is played relatively straight and with no sentimentality. After a transition in which Mengelberg deftly conducts contrasted themes at two slightly different tempi to create a subtle question and answer interplay, the forte restatement of the subject prior to the development now deploys more obvious passion. String portamento is more lavish, yet unexaggerated and full tone is perfectly tailored to structural positioning and emotional force. Its third incarnation, when the development is spent (but not histrionically overplayed), is the most intense of all, but also significantly shot through with hope, thereby overshadowing the nagging resignation of the brief coda and providing the perfect springboard to the following movement.

This degree of perception remains rare in Tchaikovsky and places Mengelberg firmly among his greatest interpreters. Flexibility never becomes merely eccentric, self-regarding or stylistically alien, as it could with Furtwangler's Tchaikovsky performances. Nor does he court the more objective constrictions of Toscanini specifically in the Pathetique. Mengelberg has similar discipline and attack in abundance, but at the service of a more beautifully proportioned expressive force contained within the broad subjective and dynamic extremes of the work as a whole.

As a work, the emotional pitch of the delightful Serenade for Strings is at a lower temperature, but Mengelberg taps into its distinctive style with energy and charm, alert to all the delectable elegance and contrapuntal dexterity that frequently draw the piece close to the composer's best ballet scores.

The highly personal stamp of Mengelberg's performances may well not be to contemporary tastes and not always how we want to hear the piece at any given time, but as an honest response to the essence of the music and for the quality of execution, he continues to put most competition in the shade.

Ian Julier

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