With the premier of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" in 1893, the curtain in many ways triumphantly came down on the Russian Romantic movement as at the same time the stage was set for the rise of Modernism via Rimsky Korsakoff and then of course Stravinsky, Prokofiev and in time Shostakovitch. That the extraordinary melodic gift of Tchaikovsky would carry over as one of the signature traits of Russian Modernism is very much the case. And it could be argued that the "Pathetique" was the exemplar of such tendencies, the masterpiece of the art in the late 19th Century.
There is a recent recording of the Pathetique (Recursive Classics 2059912) by David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. But first off, what of the music itself?
There has been a tendency in musical thinking from the Romantic era onwards to ascribe the affective content of a work to a putative emotional state of the composer when he wrote the music. So for example Stravinsky's "Rite" was in part a product of a toothache, and so too the "Pathetique" has been ascribed to Tchaikovsky's gloomy state of mind as moving toward his death when he wrote the work. We tend to allow writers some separation between written content and state of mind. So fortunately no one to my knowledge has ever tried to tie King Lear to Shakespeare's mood. The idea of the tragedy in literature permits a somber turn of plot in a work without having literally to insist that it is a direct correlate to the outlook of the writer. We can have in film today a macabre horror film that may coexist with auteur mood while not ascribing a causal relation. Why then in music must we be so grossly literal? It is a tragedy of the Modernist movement that lay listeners often are frightened away from a very progressive work with the notion that the composer must be him or herself frightening!
So the "Pathetique" and the narrative that tried to tie biography and work into an expression of one to the other. In the end it does not matter. Not for the music, that stands alone in the end as a work of great passion, perhaps, but the greatness needs no literal connection with the life.
And so we get the wondrous passage in the symphony from directly tragic opening and closing movements of grievous lament with the two ravishing inner movements with their irresistible rhythmic momentum and incredible melodic power.
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony as their name suggests is not the sizable romantic outfit that might be expected to perform the "Pathetique." There are less strings to be heard, yet the sweep of affect in those instruments are still to be heard and properly so. What seems especially good about such a reading is the more out front mix of strings and winds-brass, with the latter becoming a bit more central to key passages.
Snappy crispness and lush, sad fogs come through nicely. And some of the soggy bloat of the large orchestra in some of the less stellar performances is avoided completely.
What we get is perhaps a version for our times, no less affective but perhaps less fully drenched in emotive despair. I find it convincing. If it may not be the absolute benchmark of performances, it has its very own elan and can be enjoyed alongside the more string-centric performances to give refreshment and to allow a re-experience of the music's profound lifeway presence. So check this one out by all means.