It seems it has always been fashionable to show some disdain for Tchaikovsky, or at least to apologize for enjoying his music. His genius as an orchestrator is almost always overlooked (perhaps only because he never wrote a book on the subject, as Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov did), and he is even less likely to be credited with originality or innovativeness. Deems Taylor once wrote of a young music student who dismissed the big tune in the first movement of the "Pathetique" with the remark, "Anyone could have written that" -- to which Taylor was able to reply, "Perhaps, but Tchaikovsky did !"
The same symphony, Tchaikovsky's sixth and last, might well have served as a model for the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler -- not merely because both works are concerned with what Mahler termed "the majesty of death," but because their respective outlines are so similar, despite the greater overall dimensions of the Mahler. Tchaikovsky died a week after conducting the premiere of his "Pathetique." Mahler did not live to hear his Ninth performed, but in the 17 1/2 years between Tchaikovsky's death and his own, he conducted many performances of the "Pathetique"; he complained, in fact, that his New York audiences demanded the work too frequently. It remains, of course, one of the most popular of all symphonies, and right now we are confronted with no fewer than four new recordings of it, all of more than passing interest.
Two of these are remakes. Wilhelm Furtwaengler's 1938 recording with the Berlin Phillharmonic, on 78s, was perhaps the first version to realize to the full the peculiar nobility of the work, and it is still available in a pretty good LP transfer (Seraphim 60231). Now Deutche Grammophon has released a live concert performance by the same orchestra and conductor, taped in Cairo in 1951, on its Privilege label (2535.165; cassette 3335.165). This postwar version has one or two interpretive advantages over the classic 1938 studio performance, but they are more than offset by the gratingly inadequate sound. The older recording still attains, overall, a more consistent level of exaltation; it also boasts tidier playing, and costs less than the new Privilege.
The other remake, far more recent, is by Bernard Haitink and the Concert-gebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (philips 9500.610, cassette 7300.739). cHaitink's earlier account of the work, made with the same orchestra for Philips about a dozen years ago, was sound and sensible. The new reading, still more notable for its sanity than for its drama, is at once tauter and more probing, but there is a disappointing lack of detail in the recording itself. While Philips has been giving us some spectacular orchestral recordings lately (Colin Davis' "Firebird" with the same orchestra, for example), this one tends to conceal rather than reveal the imaginative touches that make this work a veritable handbook on orchestration.
On Philips' sister label, Deutshe Grammophon, Karl Boehm and the London Symphony Orchestra are splendidly recorded (2531.212, cassette 3301.212). As in his sole previous Tchaikovsky recording, the Fourth Symphony with the same orchestra, Boehm offers a reading that follows no tradition but shows uncommon respect for the score itself; it is large-scaled and intense, with a natural flow in which the drama seems to take care of itself quite convincingly. The orchestra is at the top of its form, and there is probably no more thoroughly musical version of this work to be had now; it may seem a mite impersonal at first, but nevertheless invites re-hearings.
Best of all in the new batch, I think, is the "Pathetique" recorded digitally by Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra on Denon OX-7183-ND. Two years ago this same team's Tchaikovsky Fourth was perhaps regarded too generously by some of us who were simply happy to have Sanderling's respected interpretation in a digital recording; the sound was actually rather dry, for all its clarity, and, perhaps because of that, the performance itself tended to sound dryish. The new "Pathetique," though, is in a different world. The sound is not only clean, detailed and undistorted, as one expects from a digital recording, but is rich, sumptuous and thoroughly alive. The improvement over the Fourth is attributed by Denon to three factors: its improved digital machinery, introduced last year (four channels, 16 bits), more judicious microphone placement and great restraint in mixing (hardly any mixing, I'm told, while the Fourth was very heavily mixed). For its part, the orchestra seems to forget that it is not supposed to be the equal of any of the others discussed her, and plays with great fluidity and brilliance, its solo winds a special joy. Sanderling's reading is both musically sound and irresistably dramatic, worthy of comparison with the most highly regarded interpretations of the past or present. There is at least one other digital "Pathetique" on the way now, but at present Sanderling's is clearly the best sounding , and in every respect one of the all-round choice versions of this much recorded work.