A Devastating Tchaikovsky Sixth

Back in October 2016, I was called to the table by Kal Rubinson when I heaped copious praise on Ivan Fischer's Channel Classics SACD of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6 in b, Op.74, "Pathétique." Now, after hearing Teodor Currentzis' devastating account for Sony of the Pathétique with Russia's MusicAeterna Orchestra, I understand the folly of my ways. Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra may play beautifully—the strings are especially lovely—but it is Currentzis who ensures that we understand how Tchaikovsky's struggle with his outsider status as a homosexual tore him apart, and may have driven him to take his own life at the age of 53.

Currentzis extends his thanks, in what have to be the most erudite and poetically philosophical agony/ecstasy conductor liner notes I have ever encountered, to Peter Qvortrup and Audio Note UK Ltd. I don't know any details, but it's possible Audio Note had something to do with the huge amount of air that surrounds the remarkably three-dimensional, studio-recorded orchestra, as well as the notably strong bass foundation that underscores Currentzis' understanding of Tchaikovsky's intent. You can hear every musical gesture and, when the going gets especially intense, some of the conductor's breathing.

But that is not what you will focus on. Rather, attention is immediately drawn to Currentzis' willingness to dwell in darkness. The surges of feeling in the first movement are breathtaking, the big romantic theme so deeply felt. After so many wonderful sweeps, Currentzis drives the abyss of silence directly into the heart when suddenly, after a pause, his orchestra explodes. If this is not a sonic depiction of doom, couched in the language of the Russian romantics rather than the atonalism that Alban Berg began to compose two decades later, I don't know what is.

When that great romantic theme returns, its troubled undercurrents almost threaten to overwhelm it. Dynamic shifts are huge, from barely a whisper to sounds almost too loud to bear in the 24/96 version I auditioned. It feels as though fate is mercilessly trampling hope into the ground. Currentzis may take over a minute longer to get through this almost 20-minute movement than does Fischer, but you'll never feel as though he's dwelling longer than necessary. Rather, without departing from classical norms, he does what is necessary to ensure that the pain that Tchaikovsky imbedded in every note reaches us without censorship.

The ironic second movement waltz remains, in this version, as lovely as ever, but what feels like an ominous drum beat beneath it declares it a waltz that Tchaikovsky will never fully enjoy. It also paves the way for a whirlwind third movement calculated to rip up apart. Presaging the dread that permeate Mahler's military marches by strongly emphasizing low lines, Currentzis creates a positively furious display in which his baton seems to have transformed into a whip. Over a minute shorter than Fischer's, it's an unbelievably exciting explosion of energy crafted to convey that Tchaikovsky felt he had no choice but to march to a drumbeat not of his own making.

Under Currentzis' grip, the fourth movement affords us no opportunity to pick up the pieces. Instead, MusicaAeterna creates an all-enveloping, all-consuming universe of devastation where things have so broken apart that all we can do is weep at the loss. Torrents of emotion, buzzing dread, incredible surges of passion and feeling, all couched in musical language of rare harmonic beauty, pour forth for just over 10 minutes. And then it ends. It just ends.

Axiom05's picture

How would you compare this performance to that of Manfred Honeck/Pittsburgh? I believe you liked that one as well, IIRC. I've been curious about the Currentzis recording, it was well reviewed in Gramophone but I didn't know whether I really needed another Tchaikovsky 6th, it could be that I do.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There is so much on my plate that I never listened to the Honeck. Perhaps Kal will chime in at some point.

The performance is astounding. I'd been meaning to get to it for a long time when BBC Magazine also gave it a rave - a best of the month, I think - and I realized it was now or never. Rarely do those two British magazines concur in such a manner. I remember the time, years ago, both praised Murray Perahia's Goldberg Variations to the heavens. I haven't seen many such instances since, and I try to watch pretty closely.

volvic's picture

I have many copies of the 6th, nothing tops Mravinsky’s version, especially on vinyl, but your positive review of Kurrentzis isn’t the first that has crossed my ipad’s screen, both gramophone and bbc mag did as well. So armed with this it is time to purchase. Also, I have written on these pages many times about Perahia’s magnificent Goldberg variations and I would be remiss, if I also did not mention his latest magnificent Hammerklavier recording for DG. Haven’t been this excited since the mid 80's, when the great Emil Giles released his Beethoven recordings, until his untimely death robbed us from hearing what probably would have been the Beethoven cycle.

foxhall's picture

I really have to agree with JVS about the Finale in this recording. The first few bars of the Adagio have so much darkness and weight and the quiet of some passages pulled me into sadness and never let me go. I was shaking my head after it was over and sat in silence for a while.

Like many, I own numerous versions of the 6th with 1991's Pletnev/RSNO (Virgin Classics) being one of my most cherished CDs. It always leaves me in an emotional state but in a different form than this new music from MusicaAeterna.

philipjohnwright's picture

So I guess that's my evening sorted.


To my mind there is no doubt that Tchaikovsky took his own life so shortly after this was premiered; the despair is palpable.

Ovation123's picture

Added to my Apple Music library until such time I can acquire a physical copy. Looking forward to hearing it.

dalethorn's picture

Your review was enticing, and so I checked a few other places before purchasing. Some of the customers who didn't like it described it as over-produced and too closely miked in places. With that in mind I do see their point, which prepared me more than this review did for the huge sonic avalanche. I'd recommend listening to this on something the size of the PS Audio IRS V. It's ... well, huge!

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- JVS

is this edition the best on CD or SACD?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I'm pretty damn good when it comes to comparing voices and interpretations, but when it comes to other classical genres, my comparison bank is limited. Regardless, what I can say without qualification is that the performance is so devastating that, no matter what other versions sound like, it must be heard.

This isn't available on SACD, but you can download it in 24/96. It is also out on LP. Thanks to Tracy for letting me know about the vinyl issue..

Ovation123's picture

And I never do that. Has displaced the venerable RCA Living Stereo SACD by Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as my go to recording.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I had never heard any of Teodor Currentzis' recordings because, so far, he has recorded standard repertoire, already well-represented in my collections, and because none of his are in multichannel. Thanks to Jason's suggestion, I downloaded a copy (16/44.1 stereo) from the plaympe website and did not find much that I liked although it was certainly fascinating. I compared it, side by side, with recordings by Honeck, Fischer, and Gatti in multichannel and by Mravinsky and Monteux in stereo. They were all preferable to Currentzis.

Although I cannot ascribe it completely to Currentzis or to the recording team, the balances throughout were strange. I heard too much detail and presence from the upper range of the lower strings which served to emphasize subsidiary lines at the expense of the main melodic voice. As a result, there was a lot of internal detail but it was more of a distraction than an elucidation. Some of the brass and winds were overly raspy and, at times, sounded almost like a sneeze. (Try the opening note of the last movement.) While there is plenty of mid-bass, the tympany were dull. Miking was too close for some of the instruments and the soundstage was severely foreshortened, front to back.

But it is the tempi that were most distinctive and they were strange. The 3rd movement, ending in a wonderful blaze, was coherent and more than satisfactory. The 2nd was also satisfactory but dull and lacking in grazia. The 1st and 4th were inconsistently paced to the extent of perversity: Slowing, pausing rushing and, at times, just losing continuity. The symphony ended with neither a bang (of course) nor a sigh. It just stopped. Overall, I found the performance overly impulsive but it is certainly different and will evoke polarized responses.

dalethorn's picture

I ended up deleting my 24/96 copy of this a couple of days ago and replacing it with the Fischer/Budapest version. On second and third listens, it was coming across as thick, turgid, and pummeling. Those aren't absolutes, just an impression of what it's like when it's almost OK, but just goes too far. I've known for awhile that Jason has a liking for such things - well, the relentless pounding aspect more than the others.

Today on a related/unrelated note, I downloaded an old pop music track to replace one I downloaded two years ago. The track from two years ago was never completely satisfactory, but it was the best I could find at the time. Today's copy sounds like the original vinyl I had decades ago. The difference? The older track was mastered or remastered for loudness compression, for radio play. It's heartbreaking to think that even the least important music would be treated this way, but at least in this narrow window of time, there are one or more sources for some of these tracks, while they last.

The reason I brought up the 'loudness' issue is because I sense a similar effect in the Currentzis recording. The potential for awesomeness is there with the Currentzis, but it needs to be made a little cleaner or clearer, whatever the case may be. As I noted previously, it might play well on the giant PS Audio IRS-V speakers for immense sonic effect, but not so well otherwise.

NeilS's picture

I wonder if some of the "strange balances" you mention on this recording (e.g., overemphasis of subsidiary lines and a foreshortened soundstage) are attributable to the relatively narrow dynamic range of the majority of the movements on this recording (According to JRMC analyses: MVT 1:DR 8; MVT 2: DR 13; MVT 3: DR 7; MVT 4: DR 8).

All of the other recordings I have encountered of this symphony present significantly wider dynamic ranges. For example, JRiver analyses the respective DR of the four movements as follows: conducted by Mravinsky (DR 10; DR 12; DR 10; DR 10), Monteux (DR 12; DR 12; DR 14; DR 14), Gergiev (DR 14; DR 14; DR 13; DR 16) or Toscanini (1942) (DR 15; DR 13; DR 14; DR 14).

It would be interesting to know the answer to how much of this recording's distinctive sound is Currentzis' deliberate artistic statement. Personally, though I found it interesting, it's not something I'd expect or want on a classical recording.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Do you have DR analyses for the Honeck? Just curious.

NeilS's picture

Alas, no, I don't have Honeck's. But it's reasonable to expect Honeck's would have significantly more dynamic range, as from what I have seen, the Currentzis recording seems to be an outlier.

FWIW, here are some other dynamic range scores for the four movements per JRMC audio analysis by the following conductors: Toscanini (1947) DR 14; DR 13; DR 12; DR 13; Reiner DR 13; DR 13; DR 13; DR 12; Stokowski DR 15; DR 14; DR 13; DR 14; Jansons DR 15; DR 15; DR 15; DR 15; Pletnev DR 15, DR 13, DR 15, DR 16; Furtwangler (1938) DR 12; DR 13; DR 11; DR 12 etc. Celibidache DR 14; DR 14; DR 12; DR 13; Bychkov DR 14; DR 15; DR 12; DR 14; Abbado DR 13, DR 15, DR 13, DR 13; Dohnanyi DR 15; DR 14; DR 15; DR 14; Giulini (BBC) DR 11; DR 11; DR 11; DR 11 ;Toscanini (1938) DR 10; DR 9; DR 11; DR 9; Dutoit DR 14; DR 14; DR 13; DR 16.

LennyM's picture

Fine and spirited performance. But this is an audio mag. I have 2 reservations about the recording.

1. Definitely a first row perspective. If that's where you like to sit I guess it's fine.

2. Very diffuse bass. There is bass, but it is indistinct. It is as though the bass fiddles, the timpani and the bass drum had very large spaces behind them and their sound traveled back and forth a few times and got a bit confused before reaching the mics.

All in all a disappointing purchase. Hard to listen to. What was Serinus thinking?

Axiom05's picture

This is exactly why I generally do not purchase classical recordings anymore from the "big" labels. The approach these days seems to be to push the recorded levels of each track close to 0 dB destroying the natural dynamic balance between movements. What's even more disappointing is that these recordings get good reviews from people that should know better, including places like Gramophone, and win awards. This is definitely sending the wrong message to the record labels. Are we losing the knowledge of how to make naturally balanced acoustic recordings? This has been a very interesting discussion, I'm glad to see that I am not alone in my dislike of these types of upfront, overly loud recordings.

NeilS's picture

The peak levels (R128) according to the same JRMC audio analysis for the four movements are +0.5 dBTP (DR 8); -0.9 dBTP (DR 13); +0.6 dBTP (DR 7); +0.3 dBTP (DR 8).

It sounds like it measures.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

For the record, I strongly believe in one of the core teachings of The Course in Miracles: there is nothing to defend. Everyone is welcome to their opinion; it's what makes the world go round.

I will say something about my reviewing process, however. Because I also review equipment, my system changes monthly. When I auditioned this recording, I was very unhappy with the sound of my set-up, and subsequently made a change that altered a lot of what I was hearing and revealed more detail. While this will be discussed in the review, it also means that I was swimming at sea, without a reference, and not in the best place to make strong calls about sound quality. I heard, for example, a strong focus on the center of the soundstage, without much expansion, but I didn't know if that was on the recording or the result of an equipment change that was very much in process.

But there is something else. I was weaned on acoustic 78s of Galli-Curci, Caruso, and Tetrazzini. I learned to tune the noise out, and focus solely on the artistry. I've become far more spoiled (as It were) by high-end audio since then, but I still retain that ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I continue to feel that, as a musical performance, this one is extraordinary. Radical in its choices, yes, but that is Currentzis's MO. As for the limited dynamic range, although I am not certain, it's quite possible that period instrument orchestra MusicaAeterna used its period instruments for the performance. If that is the case, they will have a more limited dynamic range, and also a different sonic character than we're accustomed to hearing from the Berlin Philharmonic. (The performance was recorded in Berlin.)

Kal will post shortly. After he did his initial listen, I questioned whether his files were watermarked. As it turned out, they were. His re-listen was to 24/96 files supplied to me by Sony.

We both heard a very strange sound from the winds at the start of the final movement (I think). I listened three times, trying to figure out what it was, and took a guess that it was a "misfiring" reed. Or maybe a page of music fell. For whatever reason, it wasn't edited out. It's a very strange sound, but it's hardly a game changer in my book.. Hey, has anyone heard the cough from the back of the orchestra in the first movement in Reference Recordings' fabled recording of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances? (It comes somewhere between the three and five minute mark.) A sloppy edit, and even limited dynamics, do not change my mind that this is an extraordinary performance.

Speaking of performance, I am heading to Seattle to perform, and will be offline for the next few days. I regret that I cannot participate in further exchanges.

Axiom05's picture

OMG, what is this all about? Tell me that we are not buying and downloading watermarked files. Why has this been kept quiet?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Kal downloaded initially from a reviewer-only source. It's a source that I intentionally avoid because its files are watermarked. Files available for consumer download are not watermarked, as far as I know.

Axiom05's picture

OK, thank you Jason. That puts my mind to rest. A reviewer download site with watermarked files? There is definitely something wrong with this picture; boggles the mind.

Kal Rubinson's picture

It is a fast and free way to sample music in order to determine if it is worth buying and/or reviewing the uncontaminated product. Note, also, that these files (and their MP3 versions) are for music reviewers who are not affiliated with audio publications.

When Jason asked me if I would chime in, it was the fastest way to see what he was talking about.

Please unboggle.

Axiom05's picture

Makes sense & seems like a good resource for reviewers. The whole watermark thing kind of freaked me out.


Kal Rubinson's picture

I am grateful to Jason for sending me the 24/96 files which do reveal that most of the raw and raspy sounds I heard were the fault of the 16/44.1 watermarked files. The strange sound that opens the last movement (which is heard in 2 or 3 more places on this recording) is still there and sounds like a wheeze which should have been edited out, regardless of its source.

That said, my feelings about the orchestral balances and the shallow soundstage abide and, of course, there is no effect on the tempo fluctuations that I find unsettling. Nonetheless, Jason need not defend his position by reference to equipment changes nor by his long listening experience which I found interesting and enlightening. It is the description of his emotional response to this unusual recording that is important and which may resonate with others. In this, I envy him but I can find my thrills elsewhere.

P.S.: Just to fill in the gap in the JRMC Dynamic Range listing analyses, this is what I found for the Honeck/Pittsburgh: MVT 1:DR 15; MVT 2: DR 14; MVT 3: DR 14; MVT 4: DR 16). Take that, Sony!

threewire's picture

...but like Kal, I also noted a two-dimensional soundstage and a limited dynamic range. While the size and composition of Currentzis' Siberian band might account for certain characteristics of the recording, they hardly seemed incapable of playing quite loud, contrary to what one might expect from a smaller, period instrument ensemble. Certainly Linn's recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra produce noticeably leaner textures and less sheer scale than one gets from a full-sized modern orchestra -- even one closely mic'd, but the dynamic range in the Linn recordings is not compressed as it is in the Currentzis' one. Having abused compression and limiting with reckless abandon in producing rock music mixes of my own, I can spot close miking and heavy-handed use of EQ and compression when I hear it. While my undistinguished time as an inept amateur recording engineer has made me especially sensitive to over-produced mixes, it was the experience of taking in a performance of the Philly Orchestra under the baton of MTT doing the Pathetique within weeks of buying the Curretzis recording (24/96 FLAC download) that drove home just how artificial and "engineered" this Pathetique recording is. I was 5th row center for that concert, but with Currentzis, I felt like I was close enough to conduct embarrassingly thorough medical exams on various of the musicians on the recording. And I have no issue with deep breaths and other artifacts of recording humans in a live space (I actually love that cough in the Oue/Rach recording -- it heightens the sense of listening to real people in a real space). My problem here is that nothing in this production feels remotely genuine -- the recording, the interpretation -- even the liner notes (is Teodor running a New Age encounter group or conducting an orchestra?) I wanted to love this recording. The uniformity of praise for it alone made me feel confident I was in for a remarkable experience. Unfortunately, I ended up concluding that young Mr. Currentzis is to classical music what Hans Zimmer is film composers: blunt force trauma set to music. I'd hoped the combatants in the loudness wars had at least reached an uneasy armistice, but this skirmish brings fears of renewed hostilities.