Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with Charles Hazlewood at the National Concert Hall, 30 September 2014
Sensationalised tales of repressed sexuality and suicide haunt the historiography of Tchaikovsky’s sixth, and final symphony. Christened as the ‘Pathétique’ by his brother Modest, this work epitomizes Tchaikovsky’s superior compositional facility at the height of his career. Commentators of the twentieth century have draped the symphony in a shroud of enigma in their propagation of the fact that details surrounding its underlying programme were never revealed. An examination of Tchaikovsky’s writings on the subject dissipates much of the mystery. He deplored writing music to a pre-ordained programme (one suggested by others) in the style of Berlioz and Liszt, and argued that the ‘aim of music’ was ‘to picture the many various emotions of the soul’. For Tchaikovsky, all instrumental music was ‘programme music’. He placed the utmost importance on the listener’s freedom to interpret his music as they so wished. Tchaikovsky’s untimely death, 9 days after he conducted the Pathétique’s premiere in 1893, nourished the rumour-mill with the unfounded idea that the symphony was the Russian’s suicide-note to the world — a personal requiem, as it were.
Today’s performance is in the elegant hands of BBC presenter and conductor, Charles Hazlewood. Together with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra he ushers us gently into the the world of the Pathétique. In his introduction to the work, Hazlewood discusses the various elements that make up the symphony’s structure, with brief excerpts from the score to illustrate his points. Like so many before him, our conductor discusses the emotional tension apparent within the unfurling lines of the Pathétique in relation to Tchaikovsky’s alleged struggle with his homosexuality in nineteenth-century Russia. However, this was not quite the case. Tchaikovsky was quite comfortable with his personal proclivities at this time. Being gay in the circles in which he inhabited was virtually ignored.
Following an enthusiastic reaction to Hazlewood’s engaging preface, the bassoons sound out the foreboding opening melody of the symphony’s first movement, against a descending chromatic accompaniment in the double basses. An air of desolation is established. Embers of Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini, and Manfred flicker throughout this sombre introduction. The pace, albeit a fraction faster than expected, is generally well measured. As the Adagio echoes away, the strings launch into the Allegro non troppo section with a flurry of semiquavers. Unfortunately, the resulting sound is slightly bungled at this point, as the instrumentalists struggle for unity beneath the weight of the rushing tempo. This issue is quickly resolved as the orchestra relaxs under Hazlewood’s baton. Tchaikovsky’s tapestry of musical ideas is weaved with masterful balance and conviction.
The second movement, Allegro con grazia, opens with a beautiful theme in woodwind and strings, which gently twists and turns through each delicious page of the unraveling score. Repeated assertions of the tonic ‘D’ note in timpani, bassons, cellos and double basses, taunt the melody as it attempts to escape its fate.
The mood of the third movement, Allegro molto vivace, is one, according to Hazlewood, of ‘forced gaiety’. Agitated triplet strings wheel around horns and woodwind in a superbly articulated dialogue of forces. The pure depth of sound here is fantastic. Audience members are so taken with the drama that they applaud loudly at the movement’s finale.
Tchaikovsky’s concluding movement, Adagio lamentoso, is characterised by a luscious melody in woodwind and strings, which is dripping in pathos and angst. The repeated throbbing triplet motif of the horns and bassoons adds a funeral-like air to the music. Tchaikovsky’s textural layering as he approaches each climactic moment in the score is breathtaking, and exquisitely portrayed by the orchestra. Hazlewood’s conducting is awash with the fragrance of assured elegance. Everyone rises to their feet in appreciation of such outstanding playing, as the final B minor chord dissolves into the atmosphere of the national concert hall.
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6