This past Friday Decca Classics released the first installment in Beloved Friend, a recording cycle and concert series that will explore the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and composers who influenced or were influenced by him. (The title most likely comes from Catherine Drinker Bowen’s study of the correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck, which, in turn, was how Tchaikovsky would begin his letters.) The recording project will encompass all of the symphonies and piano concertos, along with other selected orchestral works. The conductor for this project is the Russian Semyon Bychkov, working with the Czech Philharmonic. Bychkov decided to launch the project with the Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) symphony in B minor. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of the symphony in October of 1893 and would die nine days later at the age of 53. If this coincidence enhances the tragic connotations of the music, then Bychkov augmented the enhancement by coupling the symphony with the “fantasy overture” “Romeo and Juliet,” based on the tragedy by William Shakespeare.
This is Bychkov’s first recording with the Czech Philharmonic. It also happens to be the first time that Decca has launched a cycle of Tchaikovsky recordings in almost 40 years, which is somewhat remarkable in light of the breadth of both repertoire and conductors that have appeared on the Decca label. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid approaching this new release as a “warhorse” album. On the other hand, for all of the dark baggage that it carries, Opus 74 may be fairly regarded as Tchaikovsky’s most sophisticated symphony.
While it is unclear how familiar (if at all) Tchaikovsky was with Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique,” Tchaikovsky took Berlioz’ idea of structuring a symphony around an idée fixe and translated it from a dramatic narrative into a more abstract setting. Each of the four movements of Opus 74 provides a different context for a descending scale pattern. That sense of a recurring descent sets the overall emotional tone, arising even in the vigorous third (Allegro molto vivace) movement, in which the setting is almost triumphant. (Indeed, the motif asserts triumph so vigorously that, to this day, audiences still think that the symphony concludes with that third movement; and it takes a very special conductor to hold off a round of applause until the final movement has had its say.)
Of course where recordings are concerned the serious listener does not have to worry about audience confusion. Nevertheless, this is a symphony whose rhetoric depends heavily on Tchaikovsky’s consummate skills in orchestration. In a concert setting the experience of Opus 74 can be a spatial one, rather than just acoustic. Such spatial subtleties tend to fall by the wayside, even on the best engineered recordings. Part of the problem is that too many listeners now seem content with mobile devices and earbuds that reduce the whole recording affair to one of skillful technology management. Thus, while the serious listener will have no trouble recognizing and appreciating the performance insights that Bychkov has brought to both compositions on this album, Tchaikovsky remains a composer whose greatest impact is only felt in the immediacy of a concert experience.