Suffering and Celebration in Glorious SACD Sound

Not having listened to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6, aka the "Pathétique," in quite some time, I had forgotten how heart-tugging beautiful it is. While there are many recordings of the work, few can possibly sound as good and feel as right as the new hybrid SACD from Channel Classics with Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Due out October 7, when it will also be available for download in high-resolution format from, the recording also enlists the fine Brno Czech Philharmonic Choir for its atmospheric pairing, Borodin's Polovtsian Dances.

Tchaikovsky seems to have been at the end of his rope when, on October 28, 1883, he walked onto the stage in Saint Petersburg to introduce what was destined to be his final symphony. Just nine days later, he was dead of cholera. To this day, it remains unclear if, when he drank a fatal glass of unboiled water in front of his brother and nephew in the midst of a cholera epidemic—"I am not afraid of cholera," he declared before downing the glass—he did so with the hope that it would kill him. Nor do we know with certainty if his possible death wish was connected to his shame around his homosexual relationship with his young nephew.

What is certain, however, is that the "Pathétique" is filled with such overwhelming sorrow and dread as to lead one to despair for Tchaikovsky's societally-induced suffering. Within the first few bars of the symphony, expectations are set by its dramatically dark tone. After a number of vividly painted contrasts, the first achingly beautiful theme emerges. Fischer's pacing is so beautiful—the slowing down at first movement's end is perfectly judged—the strings so silken, and the expression so searing that it's virtually impossible to remain moved.

Perhaps because Tchaikovsky was not playing by the rules in his personal life, he may have attempted to compensate by ceding to audience expectations in the next two movements. He certainly strikes a far different tone in his graceful and lyrical second movement dance. The third movement seems equally out of context, save for its ominous, quasi-militaristic percussive rumblings.

With the final movement, however, comes a major and seemingly irreversible return to despair. The symphony ends, not with a bang, but with a trailed-off, tragic whimper. Given the beauty of the musicianship, the effect is deeply moving.

For Borodin's very different, splendiferous dances, my observations must strike a personal note. I first became familiar with some of the themes in the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor in high school, when I appeared in a production of Robert Wright and George Forrest's Kismet. Some of that musical's most famous songs, eg, "Stranger in Paradise," were lifted wholesale from Borodin.

Later on, when I lived in the Bay Area for 42 years, I had the misfortune to discover that classical radio station KDFC was prone to programing the work with dismaying regularity. There is no way to tire of a tuneful classical work quicker than to hear it over and over again on a crappy car radio while crossing the Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic.

How surprising, therefore, to discover the deeply seductive and energizing nature of Fischer's performance. The recording, set down in Budapest in January 2014 by Hein Dekker and Jared Sacks, is immensely atmospheric, with luxurious color surges, splendid percussion, and impressive depth. Even the chorus sounds vibrant rather than hackneyed. With expectations of another dreary romp through Igor Land soundly defeated, I ended up celebrating Borodin's upbeat contrast to Tchaikovsky's despair.

philipjohnwright's picture

The despairing, achingly empty, last bars of the symphony surely show his state of mind.

woodford's picture

i think you mean 1883.

John Atkinson's picture
I corrected the date.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Mr. Ives's picture

Of course, you understand that he died either on October 25th (old style) or November 6th (new style), 1893. NOT 1883!

Kal Rubinson's picture

You might also consider the recent Tchaikovsky 6 from Manfred Honeck and the PSO as recorded by the SoundMirror team on Reference Recordings FR-720. It is weighy/moody, perhaps more so than the Fischer/BFO which I have not yet unwrapped.

dalethorn's picture

I've been looking for the Honeck for about an hour on the Reference Recordings site, and can't find it. They don't have a search either...

Kal Rubinson's picture

Get them here:

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Now that you have recommended the Honeck recording, which I have not heard, over the Fischer, which you have not heard, it would be good to receive your considered, post-audition opinion of both. I regret that, in the midst of writing show blogs, the thought of me conducting such a comparison cannot be entertained.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- JVS.

dalethorn's picture

Trying to find out if Channel Classics has FLAC downloads. No answer yet, although reading their site they seem to say no.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I don't believe you can get DSD in FLAC format, but I could be wrong. I'm too mired in writing show blogs right now to think straight about that one.

dalethorn's picture

I got a reply back from Channel Classics that said "It's easy to convert our tracks to FLAC etc., so now I have to get working on that. I'll reply back here...

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes. It can be done with any of a number of programs or products. I use JRMC as my music player and it can do this.

OTOH, stereo FLAC is available here:

JR_Audio's picture

DSD Master works great for offline converting of DSD files into PCM. You can chose what PCM sample rate you like and it does also include the 6 dB level difference between DSD and PCM and you can batch convert and it can also create a hybrid file, that contains DSD and PCM into it (sure then twice the size) but then you have only one file and the playback software can decide which part of the file you want to play back, the DSD source part or the PCM converted part.


Kal Rubinson's picture

OK. I listened to the Fischer/Tchaikovsky6 in multichannel and it is quite lovely both in performance and in the spacious depiction of the entire orchestra in the hall. The upper strings are notable in their silkiness.

However, I found the performance limited in its emotional and dynamic range. With the Honeck/PSO. a sense of sadness, even doom, is apparent from the beginning of the 1st movement and when they get to the big surging theme, the sense of release almost takes the air out of the room. By comparison, Fischer/BFO is more even and all-of-a-piece. The rest is similar with Fischer staying on an even keel while Honeck makes a clear sense of the range of emotions in the music. Just try the opening of the last movement in which, again, Fischer plays as gracefully as much of the preceding, but note how Honeck and the PSO seem to heave a deep sigh. It's all in the phrasing.

The Honeck/PSO is closer, has more dynamic range and has richer bass lines but Fischer/BFO benefits from luscious string tone and a wider soundstage.

For me, the Fischer is more than just nice but the Honeck is what I will choose to listen to.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

A reasoned appreciation from a true music lover. I have yet another recording to dig out and listen to.

Love to you,