ISO's "Pathetique" far from pathetic 

click to enlarge Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru
  • Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru

Digital Dream Door hosts a website that ranks everything under the proverbial sun. On its classical-music page and its symphony-genre sub-page, it ranks the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, Op. 74 ("Pathetique"), as the fourth greatest symphony ever written. It deems the number one greatest as Beethoven's Ninth, which the ISO will perform this June 11-13. I fully concur with the latter ranking.

While I don't agree with the exact ordering of DDD's rankings of anything (and who would?), I'm certainly in accord that the "Pathetique" easily rates high enough to be in the top ten symphonies written to date. And on Friday, guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru revealed that "truth" as well as or better than any other podium artist I've witnessed.

Every classical buff knows that the "Pathetique" has four movements and that the third movement ends in a loud, tumultuous, victorious paean, which invariably evokes spontaneous applause, while the Adagio lamentoso finale concludes in the silence "of the grave." My only caveat with Măcelaru was his childlike admonition to the audience before he began the work not to applaud after the third movement. Telling an audience how to react between movements in any genre should be a no-no for all conductors.

Especially after what ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański also childishly did with Op. 74 two seasons ago, bowing after the third movement applause and leaving the stage, only to return and yell, "There's one more movement" after a few patrons had already left the hall. The best course for the conductor is to accept any third-movement applause as spontaneous, nod his head in their direction, then proceed with the fourth movement when all is again quiet.

That issue aside, Măcelaru yielded a music drama of the first order, creating beauty with its themes, and generating passion, joy, tragedy, despair and resignation -- moods more succinctly realized in this symphony than in all others. Some of his tempos were fast, especially that third movement; it almost raced by us. But he kept his forces pretty much in tow throughout. It was perhaps a bit more exciting than it was completely precise. Yet it showed no signs of unraveling anywhere.And that final note by the lower strings became "as silent as the grave."

click to enlarge Cellist Johannes Moser
  • Cellist Johannes Moser

The program's first two works were far less momentous: Liszt's original orchestral version of his Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33, with guest cellist Johannes Moser. Though I've seldom heard Liszt's orchestral version, its piano transcription, written much later in the composer's life, is often given in recital and is surely in most pianists' repertoire. I found the orchestral version too thick-textured to get much enjoyment from it. It also seemed too "pianistic."

Moser demonstrated excellent bravura playing in the Tchaikovsky Variations, but the composer's best creative effort resided in his wind writing. This apparently was the Wilhelm Fitzenhagen version, a contemporaneous cellist who recast Tchaikovsky's solo writing into a much greater soloistic display. It became known only in that form until the composer's original was uncovered and published in 1941. While Moser's technical gifts should go unchallenged, his tone was less beautiful than other touring cellists visiting these environs. In any case, Tchaikovsky was the evening's dominant figure as Moser and the ISO strings encored with his Andante cantabile, adapted and condensed from his first string quartet's slow movement. May 15; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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