Symphony No. 6,
Romeo and Juliet
Thomas Dausgaard, cond; Swedish CO
BIS SACD-1959 (SACD: 62: 21)
Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” with a chamber orchestra? The idea sounds at best unpromising, although I am aware that in the 19th century, works for “large orchestra” were sometimes performed with forces smaller than are generally used today. It is also true that a chamber orchestra may be augmented in order to tackle large-scale works, although I discern no indication in the notes for this recording or in the sound emerging from it that the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, described as a “tightly knit ensemble of 38 regular members,” was so enlarged for this occasion. In contrast, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner’s period instrument band specializing in music of the 19th century, listed 61 members at a recent Carnegie Hall concert.
So does it work? For me, I’m afraid the answer is no, not very much. I grant that this orchestra’s musicians play very proficiently and that the recorded sound is excellent. I also acknowledge that the use of smaller forces can yield dividends in transparency of texture, something I am normally very much in favor of, but others have managed to secure comparable transparency without reducing the size of the orchestra and without the sacrifices in tonal weight, solidity, and richness that are too much in evidence here. I am also in favor of prominent winds and brass, but not where the strings are often undernourished and lacking in body. The lower strings seem especially inadequate, dull and lusterless. In the climaxes of the first movement, the orchestra tries hard, but the results are unsatisfying, lacking the required power and mass. From the interpretive standpoint, Thomas Dausgaard’s approach is plain and literal, lacking a strong profile. I do not detect any particular felicities of shaping that would compensate for the problems deriving from undersized orchestral forces. The second-movement waltz once again suffers from thin strings, lacks the graceful flow of the best performances, and seems prosaic. The finale strikes me as aloof and lacking in deep feeling, especially in the briskly dispatched final pages. In a superior performance, the “Pathétique” can be a deeply moving, even shattering experience, despite the fact that one has heard it hundreds of times. That power and intensity is missing in Dausgaard’s rendition.
Romeo and Juliet
is no more successful, suffering from the same problems as the symphony. The orchestral sonority is once again unsatisfying, lacking the fullness we expect in this music. The strings are thin on top, hard-toned and lusterless below. The opening pages are brisk, matter-of-fact, and uninvolving. The love music lacks sensuousness. The climaxes often seem effortful rather than powerful. Overall, the performance feels rather stiff and unyielding.
There is a surfeit of excellent recordings of these works available to the collector. In 35:1 I designated Dmitry Kitaenko’s recording of the “Pathétique” (Oehms) my “unhesitating first choice” among SACD versions, and that has not changed. I also mentioned several recordings on conventional CD that I particularly value, including those of Evgeny Mravinsky (DG), Jascha Horenstein (EMI, not currently available), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), and Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI). To those I would add Daniele Gatti’s superb performance on Harmonia Mundi, with its winning combination of urgency, precise phrasing, subtle colorations, and finely judged balances. Vladimir Jurowski’s highly dramatic rendition (LPO) is also distinctive and outstanding. Desirable performances of
Romeo and Juliet
include those of Sinopoli (coupled with his excellent “Pathétique,” available from ArkivMusic), Gatti (Harmonia Mundi), Claudio Abbado (Sony), Kurt Masur (Warner), Riccardo Muti (EMI), and Mikhail Pletnev (DG).