Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded April 2002 (Tchaikovsky) and January 2003 in the Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2003
CD No: ONDINE ODE 1002-2
Timings are but a measurement. They do not relay the intrinsic qualities of an interpretation. That Mikko Franck takes 55 minutes over the Pathétique is merely a statement of fact. In doing so he joins other stretchers of time such as Bernstein and Celibidache. Their recordings of the Tchaikovsky (DG and EMI respectively) are very different. Mikko Franck is different again. All they share in common is taking longer than usual.
First on the CD is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 8-minute Apotheosis. Post-opera (Vincent) and -symphony (No.6, Vincentiana), Apotheosis reaches for the sky, enchanted in soundworld, transfigured in climax, the symphony’s final movement now distilled and left hovering in mid-air as too epic and too easily achieved. In his note, Mikko Franck voices a commitment to Rautavaara’s music that is exemplified in the performance.
The Pathétique is given a fascinating performance. Franck says that this was the first symphonic piece he got to know, when aged 8. He then became seriously ill. The score was by his side. He admits he has a subjective view of it. Yet, this is not necessarily what one hears. While Bernstein is certainly emotionally subjective (with a vengeance), Franck seems more concerned to ensure that the Pathétique is revealed as transparently as possible. He is more in line with the ultra-fastidious Celibidache.
Franck gives the music time to breathe and ruminate. He doesn’t become mawkish, hysterical or, indeed, predictable. This may or may not be the composer’s suicide note that strikes to Franck’s core. He is careful to pace and unite the work’s sum and substance – to devastating effect. The stormy development of the first movement is measured, deliberate even, the articulation of notes the primary concern, so too the light and shade of timbral contrast. Then Franck hits us between the eyes with a balefully unleashed climax that aches with pain and desperation. Franck has plunged the knife in, the cut is deep. The timpani sound funereal strokes. A forlorn sense of loss and regret dominates, yet the closing bars offer hope, in keeping with Franck’s declared view.
The Waltz is kept moving. Although tinges of melancholy stab at the courtly exterior, Franck is careful to keep things within titular confines. None of the three conductors under discussion see the succeeding March as a mere showpiece; each taps into darker undercurrents, their respective tempi broader than the norm. Franck doesn’t quite time the rhetoric. Celibidache does – from him the final statement of this defiant music absolutely blazes: hair-raising!
With the slow, lamenting Finale, it’s worth noting that Celibidache is the quickest, 13 minutes, to which Franck adds a minute. Bernstein gets to 17. Again these are mere statistics. For Franck, it seems, the catharsis, indeed the symphony itself, was in the first movement; the Finale is resigned valediction. The doom-laden rasp of bassoon and double basses returns us to the symphony’s opening, the remembrance is sweet if out of reach (and without Bernstein’s affected punctuation). After a massive cry from the abyss, the fateful (and too loud!) gong-stroke sounds for an eternity. Franck searches beyond the notation to retard the music to withdrawal; it is hugely affecting – a black and desolate leave-taking.
If, like Celibidache, Franck sometimes denies Tchaikovsky his sustained force, or what we have become used to (both versions, Celibidache’s especially, are fascinating aural documents), Franck’s translucent and linear reading is not what it initially seems. All three of these Pathétiques are mandatory listening – not because each adds time to convention (that’s irrelevant) but because they have something richly illustrative and individual to impart. Mikko Franck extends our appreciation of the music. No mean achievement.