Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (Western Australian Symphony Orchestra)
This West Australian Symphony Orchestra concert began with River Mountain Sky by Maria Grenfell. Born in Malaysia, raised in New Zealand and now based in Australia, Grenfell’s work is heavily inspired by poetic and visual sources. The first measures of River Mountain Sky confirm the title of the work: an imposing tutti figure followed by a flute and bewitching woodwinds welcomes the dawn, followed by strings, which take up the introductory theme.
A cohesive sound wash in a loose tutti adds bird-call figures, leading to a bolder section beginning with timpani and xylophone followed by brass, sometimes muted, varying the soundscape. The gradual fading of the strings with woodwind interjections leads to the soft conclusion of the harp and xylophone. The varying dynamic levels and sonorities throughout the work captured a grandeur of nature and landscape, perhaps reminiscent of the composer’s Tasmanian home, conveying the dramatic and contrasting sights and sounds of the island.
Next comes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K491. What could be more satisfying than a well-executed Mozart piano concerto? The joy of simplicity and elegance is the very essence of these concertos. Bandleader Asher Fisch appeared as a soloist in this performance, conducting from the keyboard. The discipline and clarity required to perform Mozart are all too well understood by musicians. The flair with elegant phrasing and shading is a no-brainer, and Fisch did not disappoint in this regard.
Mozart was at the height of his creativity when he finished this concerto. It was created a few months before his opera the Marriage of Figaroand Mozart was perhaps the leading keyboard soloist, a trend that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Figaro’s wedding was written almost entirely in major keys, befitting a comic opera, but this concerto is one of the few in minor keys and to use a larger orchestra. The larger orchestral size may have detracted from the clarity of the piano in this rendition.
The form of the work presents wonderful contrasts, with the lively opening allegro prepares us for enchantment Larghetto. the Allegretto the finish with variations concludes and perfectly balances the whole.
Fisch maintained disciplined but proper tempos in all movements. The virtuoso scale passages were accomplished with confident ease, but the balance with the orchestra was less than ideal. The cadenza used was from Brahms – an opportunity for a more romantic and full style of playing. The sudden change in style upset the “status quo” for this writer. The orchestral accompaniment stylistically complemented the soloist, but the issue of balance between soloist and orchestra was a frustration throughout the performance.
The concert culminated with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, ‘Pathétique’. It wouldn’t be surprising if the themes of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony featured in many films, the long seductive melodies lending themselves to tragedy and pathos, and the driving marching rhythms conveying nationalist pride. Tchaikovsky originally approved the title “Patetitceskaja” meaning “passionate” when he conducted the initial performance of the work. The first posthumous performance adopts the name “Pathétique” which has been used ever since.
The composer described the work as “the best and sincerest of all my creations”. At 53, he feels he has found a way out of a symphonic impasse, reconnecting with the heights of his symphonic success and moving away from banal piano pieces and popular works such as Nutcracker ballet, which he considered a creative numbness.
The sixth symphony was dedicated by Tchaikovsky to his nephew Vladimir Davydov. Theories abound as to whether this symphony was a “suicide note”, but family correspondence indicated that Tchaikovsky had been optimistic and brighter than usual when composing the work. He knew he had reached a climax in his composition, not conforming to the rigid rules that dictated a loud triumphal ending – although it has been suggested that to conclude with a powerful ending, some Soviet orchestras reversed the order of the last two movements.
The contrasting moods of the first movement were fully revealed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, a beautiful bassoon solo overture followed by resounding trumpet fanfares and clear strings playing in the allegro sections. The reprise of the familiar second theme at the end of the movement featured a wonderful, haunting clarinet solo preceding the peaceful descending pizzicato string passage that concluded the movement.
A restrained ‘clumsy dance’ second movement with five beats in a bar was played with appropriate grace throughout the orchestra, neat nuances adding to the overall lyricism.
The fast to live raises the mood of the audience and the performers in the third movement. The light that talks scherzando was beautifully characterized before the march, with Fisch keeping the tempo leading up to this triumphant movement ending eliciting applause. The balance was never overwhelmed by enthusiastic brass, which can often be the case, in this lavishly exciting passage.
Tchaikovsky’s own correspondence stated that “the finale will not be a noisy allegro, but a long, interminable adagio”. An ironic waltz emerges from the depths of seeming despair in this finale. the deplore instruction was conveyed throughout the movement, the tense harmonies adding to the overall elegiac mood. The dynamics were diligently controlled leading up to the end of the symphony, with low bass fading to an imperceptible end, the essential essential silence being maintained by Fisch from the podium.
It was a polished and controlled overall performance by the WA Symphony Orchestra. Justified recognition was given to the clarinet and bassoon players during the enthusiastic applause that greeted the conductor and orchestra at the end of the concert.
The Western Australian Symphony Orchestra performs TChaikovsky’s Pathos again at the Perth Concert Hall on March 19 at 7:30 p.m.