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Dip Your Ears, No. 239 / Ionarts CD of the Month (Pathétique Heroin)

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Symphony No.6 - Pathétique

So over-the-top, so permanently electric, so much current running through it… so doubling down on anything Tchaikovsky may have even just insinuated… so extreme in going to the full logical extent (and perhaps further—who knows, who cares) on color, effect, emotion, that Tchaikovsky’s lumbering-romantic grand Pathétique arises anew and horrifically awesome.

In this world of extremes, though, sweetness doesn’t translate into the saccharine: it translates into heroin. “Currentzis’ expressive intensity borders on the extreme” says David Hurwitz on ClassicsToday and thereby engages in an exercise of understatement. Sighing, heaving, crying; fits of anger, pouting, bristling, foaming, snarling (so hard that you fear the brass instruments may fall apart at the seams): There isn’t a gerund you can throw at this performance that it won’t swallow hole and make its own.

In the Adagio, MusicAeterna—Currentzis’ orchestra of willing Nibelung slaves—go from a scowling crocodile with halitosis to the beauty of a Bach chorale in under 2 seconds. And instead of being interminably long, this Pathétique is over before you know it. The sound is resonant and rich—tubby even—and yet overtly detailed: A telltale sign of microphone-pointing in the best tradition of Soviet symphonic recordings. Not the latest in high-fidelity but helping Currentzis to make his musical points.

This release makes it three borderline-great Pathétiques just in the last few years – and each very different from each other. There’s this OTT approach, then the broad, richly rewarding caramel-cream and custard approach of Bychkov’s with the Czech Philharmonic (Decca) that bathes you in sound (much like his Manfred Symphony; see “Forbes Best Recordings of 2017”), and the excellence-without-exaggeration of Manfred Honeck’s with his Pittsburgh band (Reference Recordings).

Is it superficial? Sure it is. But isn’t Tchaikovsky also? (Maybe not to you, in which case you have my apologies.) Be that as it may, superficiality and glamour and glitz can be Damian Hurst-esque… appallingly empty, The-Emperor-Has-No-Taste-in-Arts-style. Or it can be wildly fun and a manifesto for living in the moment. Currentzis’s Tchaikovsky is the latter. Out for effect instead of nuance; Jackson Pollock over careful coloring and shading of a well-behaved musical topography? Yes and yes again and who cares. This is weird, Wagnerian, wonderful. One of the necessary Tchaikovsky Sixths to have heard, if you are at all into classical music!

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