Lan Shui conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Find out more about the SSO:

Much conjecture has surrounded the “programme” of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. While working on the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov that “the programme will be of a kind that will remain an enigma to all – let them guess … This programme is saturated with subjective feeling … while composing it in my mind I shed many tears.” Tchaikovsky at first called the work Programme Symphony, but then decided that with no declared programme to go with it, the title was a contradiction in terms. He then considered calling it the “Tragic”, but when his brother Modeste suggested “patetichesky”, the composer exclaimed, “Excellent, Modya, bravo, patetichesky!” The word was inscribed immediately on the score’s title page and taken to the publisher Jurgenson. One day later, the composer had a change of heart and asked Jurgenson to remove the word “if it’s not too late”. But Jurgenson, no doubt with an eye towards sales from a catchy title, let the work go out as Symphonie pathétique, and as such the name has stuck. The word pathétique, incidentally, derives from the greek patheticos, and has a different flavour than in most modern English contexts, where it usually implies inadequacy and pity, as in “a pathetic attempt”. In Russian, the word patetichesky refers to something passionate, emotional, and, as in the original Greek, having overtones of suffering.

Tchaikovsky began working on his last symphony in February of 1893 and conducted the first performance on October 28 in St. Petersburg. It was only mildly successful, due to a puzzling Adagio finale that ended softly, an indifferent orchestra and the composer’s consequent lack of enthusiastic leadership. nevertheless, he felt that it was “the best and especially the most sincere of my works. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical creations.” At the second performance three weeks later, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, the symphony left a powerful impression. But the composer was dead – the Symphonie pathétique had become his swan song.The introductory bassoon solo, which crawls slowly through the murkiest colours of the orchestra, becomes the melodic material for the Allegro section’s principal theme. The second theme, presented by the violins, is probably the most memorable of the entire work – haunting in its beauty, poignancy and sad lyricism.The second movement is the famous “broken-backed waltz, limping yet graceful” in 5/4 meter. The central Trio section, also in 5/4, is noteworthy for the steady, pulsing notes in the bassoons, double basses and timpani.

The third movement combines elements of a light scherzo with a heavy march. So festive and exuberant does the march become that one is tempted to stand and cheer at the end, making all the more effective the anguished cry that opens the finale. The finale’s infinitely warm and tender second theme in D major works itself into a brilliant climax and crashes in a tumultuous descent of scales in the strings. The first theme returns in continuously rising peaks of intensity, agitation and dramatic conflict. Finally the energy is spent, the sense of struggle subsides, and a solemn trombone chorale leads into the return of the movement’s second theme, no longer in D major but in B minor – dark, dolorous, weighted down in inexpressible grief and resignation. The underlying heart throb of double basses eventually ceases, and the symphony dies away into blackness… nothingness. (Robert Markow)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor

0:00 I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
20:14 II. Allegro con grazia
28:23 III. Allegro molto vivace
37:15 IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

Recorded live at the Esplanade Concert Hall, 30 Apr 2015.

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