TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6, 'Pathetique' (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550782)
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No.6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique"
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russiancomposers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in itsmelodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more toTchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievementbecause of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer,Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home,under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten hewas a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing hiscourse there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During theseyears he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probablethat he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov andBorodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the newConservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him tostudy there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as amember of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein'sbrother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financialassistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave theConservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in hislife brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, awoman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further toTchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was atorment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled withphysical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervousbreak-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical andpersonal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda vonMeck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for hiscareer, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far frommaking physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiouslyremote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea ofbankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer ofimportance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generallyknown. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to theTsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son.
To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows metand condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death wasannounced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was,until relatively recently, generally accepted.
Tchaikovsky's last symphony, called, at the prompting of his brother Modest,the Pathetique, rather than simply "Programme Symphony", as thecomposer had originally intended, was first performed in St. Petersburg underTchaikovsky's direction on 16th October (28th October on the Western calendar),1893. The programme of the work, which had been sketched earlier in the year andorchestrated during the summer, was autobiographical. He had jotted down a roughplan in 1892. The whole essence of the plan of the symphony is Life. Firstmovement- all impulsive, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale- Death - result of collapse). Second movement love; third disappointments;fourth ends dying away (also short). In a letter to his nephew Bob Davidov hehad suggested that the programme of the symphony was to be a secret, butsubjective to the core. This it remained, although the details of the originalscheme were to be modified.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction, in which the bassoon, overdivided double basses, prefigures the first theme of the following Allegro. Herethere is conflict for life, leading to the tenderness of the second subject, alove theme. This in turn fades into a whispered bassoon fragment, marked, withcharacteristic exaggeration, pppppp, in a symphony that is later to reachthe other dynamic extreme of ffff. Compressed in its use of traditionalsymphonic form, the movement interrupts the surge of life with the presence ofdeath and with overt references to elements of the Russian Orthodox Requiem.
The second movement is in unconventional 5/4 time, something that Hanslick,in his hostile review of the first performance in Vienna in 1895, foundloathsome. The melody, however, must seem a particularly fine example ofTchaikovsky's powers of invention, a gift allowed such apt expression in hisballet scores. The middle section of the movement admits the intrusion of anominous element of mortality, with its descending scale of death.
There follows a scherzo, its first subject leading to a march in whichtriumph is tinged with irony. In the succeeding final movement there is a starkconfrontation with death, as the music, entrusted as at the beginning to thedarker toned lower instruments of the orchestra, fades to nothing.
Tchaikovsky conducted his sixth and final symphony in St. Petersburg ninedays before his death. The symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini waswritten in 1876 and given its first performance in Moscow early the followingyear. The composer had been seeking a further subject for an opera and alibretto had been made available to him on the subject of the forbidden love ofPaolo and Francesca, as recounted by Dante in Canto V of the Inferno. Perhapsthe opening words of the poem might have seemed apt enough for his ownsituation. Now in the middle of life's road, he too found himself in acomparably dark wood, while the despair of Paolo and Francesca, condemned toperpetual suffering, fitted all too well his own mood. Nessun maggior dolore/Chericordarsi del tempo felice/Nella miseria were words of significance for him,even if he did misquote them in a letter to his brother Modest, written fromVichy, where he was taking the waters and suffering agonies of depression.
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO)
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO) was foundedin 1935 in Warsaw through the initiative of well-known Polish conductor andcomposer Grzegorz Fitelberg. Under his direction the ensemble worked until theoutbreak of the World War II. Soon after the war, in March 1945, the orchestrawas revived in Katowice by the eminent Polish conductor Witold Rowicki. In 1947Grzegorz Fitelberg returned to Poland and became artistic director of the PNRSO.
He was followed by a series of distinguished Polish conductors - Jan Krenz,Bohdan Wodiezko, Kazimierz Kord, Tadeusz Strugala, Jerzy Maksymiuk, StanislawWislocki and, since 1983, Antoni Wit. The orchestra has appeared with conductorsand soloists of the greatest distinction and has recorded for Polskie Nagraniaand many international record labels. For Naxos, the PNRSO will record thecomplete symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Antoni Wit was born in Cracow in 1944 and studied there. before becomingassistant to Witold Rowicki with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsawin 1967.