Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Dumka (Russian rustic scene), Op.59
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Symphony recorded October 2006 in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
Christoph Eschenbach (piano) [Dumka]
Recorded November 2006 in Perelman Theater, Philadelphia
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: ONDINE ODE 1131-5
Duration: 60 minutes
Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra have already presented Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies in luxurious sounding versions for Ondine; and similar affluence is afforded the ‘Pathétique’, a plush, time-taken account (50 minutes) that impresses technically but leaves a doubt as to what emotionalism was involved at time. I was admiring but rarely moved.
There’s no doubting that if superb orchestral playing and sound – and this issue sports both – were enough, then this release could be immediately perched in the upper echelons of recordings of this much-documented work. And, truth to tell, one can take much gratification from the Philadelphians’ wonderfully assured playing, their sensitivity and power, the strings’ gorgeous sonority and Eschenbach’s immaculately honed preparation and expressive largesse with the slower music; and there’s no lack of energy and incision in faster passages. One also appreciates the conductor’s employment of antiphonal violins and that the (left-positioned) double basses have tremendous weight and presence (though the brass can overpower); yet there is something a little too calculated about this live performance (or a compilation of several – a poor edit at 2’57” in the first movement seems to disrupt from one evening to another).
But this is also a ‘Pathétique’ that, despite spacious tempos, has an enviable cohesion and a lack of exaggeration. The middle movements are brought off with elan, a ‘Waltz’ that keeps its (nimble) steps without faltering and a ‘March’ that is deftly articulated and ornamented while not being rushed off its feet in deplorable showmanship. With the slow finale (and this one is pretty measured), although Eschenbach’s approach is notable for any lack of sentimentality, the movement shaped ‘in one’ and not without feeling, there is a gloss that somehow prevents the listener (this one anyway) going beyond the (admittedly beautiful) surface. Mravinsky (DG), Celibidache (EMI), Mikko Franck (also Ondine) and Leonard Bernstein (DG), to name but four, all offer something more involving.
However, for those moments of ‘guilty pleasure’ when great playing and sound are just what the doctor ordered, then this release will be handily placed. In any case, as on his preceding two Tchaikovsky records, Eschenbach’s essaying of some of the composer’s piano music is altogether special. Previously he has given us an outstanding version of The Seasons (six months per disc!) and here the richly diverse Dumka reminds once more of Eschenbach’s aristocratic and imaginative pianism, and he finds the soul of this relatively extended piece more readily than he does that of the symphony; furthermore, the piano has been recorded with admirable presence and fidelity.