Thursday, February 7, 2008

Review: Tchaikovsky's Pathétique at NY Philharmonic Feb. 5, 2008

The poetry of music was in full swing at Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday as the New York Philharmonic added another dimension to Fat Super Super Tuesday with a program capped by Tchaikovsky's final symphony: the mysterious, beautiful and mournful Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, a.k.a. "Pathétique." And it was -- in a word -- "magnifique!"

The program's first half was admirable, with strong performances of Rossini's brisk "Overture to La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder)" and Mendelssohn's "Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, Italian." But it was the second half that compelled attendance, and the brilliant performance of Pathétique made it a truly incredible experience.

The Pathétique is one of the saddest, most heart wrenching pieces of music ever written. In Tchaikovsky's original notes for the piece, he sketched a concept that the symphony would begin with "The ultimate essence of the thirst for activity," leading into "Second movement, love; third, disappointments; fourth ends dying. . .Finale DEATH -- result of collapse." Nice place to start. In sum, this ain't no 1812 Overture. No canons, no fireworks, no wine and cheese crowd pleaser here. If anything, like the poetry of Charles Bukowski, this piece seeks to uncover the beauty of horror, not excluding slow, regret-filled, painful death. Under the baton of the distinguished Lorin Maazel, the Pathétique surged and swelled like a human heart, with its rich theme line still reverberating in my mind.

A word about the NY Phil: Imagine having your whole being moved by the sound of a single clarinet 40 yards away. Now imagine being moved by the Pathétique's instrumentation: Three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam (gong) and strings. 

This is what the program describes as the instrumentation. It doesn't mention that "strings" means 30 (yes, 30) violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses. The dynamics were intense, even with the much-maligned acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. 

The third movement, in particular, Allegro molto vivace, grew to a fevered pitch only equalled in intensity by the average male mid-life crisis. Oddly, half the audience was packing up and ready to hit the road after this movement, assuming, like so many commercials imply, that life is going to end on an upbeat note.

Wrong. As Tchaikovsky so brilliantly distills, all the build up of youth and middle age, is destined to lead to long, slow, sad silver years. The real challenge of being human is to see the beauty of these years, with the all the lamenting, pain and sorrow. Tchaikovsky manages this wonderfully, with a finale of despair, ongoing sighs, and a final fading away replete with a final few slow beats of a heart.

When it was over, it was difficult to move. Even Maazel seemed as if he wished the audience didn't have to applaud that we could all just stay there in this place of beauty without end, until the last vibration of sound died as we did... with great tenderness. Such wasn't the case. But, for as long as it lasted, it was a fine place to be.

One final note: Shortly after writing Pathétique, Tchaikovsky conducted its world premiere and died nine days later at the age of 53. His parting gift is one the world should treasure forever.

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