Thursday, June 5, 2008

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: This Disc is Pathetique!

I can't help but laugh when I see this CD, because each time I pull it from my shelf I always say to myself, "this disc is pathetic!"

But of course that's not true. This disc contains two classical music's most beautiful works.
Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata #8 in C minor "Pathetique"
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony #6 "Pathetique"
Teldec, 1998
However, beyond their similar names, there is next to no similarity between these two works--one of which is a sonata for unaccompanied piano, and the other a symphony. Beethoven's piano sonatas are practically a genre unto themselves, and some of them can be difficult at first for for new classical music listeners to appreciate (this was certainly true for me). We'll tackle additional Beethoven piano sonatas in the coming months.

In any event, these two preposterously disparate works supposedly fit together because they both embody the concept of pathos. Not pathos in the modern, pejorative sense of excessive, over-the-top emotion (which the word bathos would more accurately describe), but in the sense of profound and genuine suffering, usually in living out one's fate or destiny.

But let's face up to the real reason these two works were combined on a single disc: marketing. This kind of kitschy, pseudo-eclectic combination is dreamed up in marketing departments, not in the minds of symphony conductors. But as long as it spreads the gospel of classical music, I'm okay with it.

And of course a key liability of a disc like this, mainly because it contains work from two composers whose names begin with different letters of the alphabet, is that it becomes impossible to organize your CD collection. In your alphabetized shelf of CDs, do you put this under Beethoven? Under Tchaikovsky? Under P for Pathetic? This is why I tend to stick to one-composer CDs, or at least compendium recordings of composers who share the same first letter of their last names.

Some brief listener notes:
1) Beethoven apparently prided himself on the technical demands involved in playing his piano sonatas. Even as a non-piano player I can tell that this guy Barenboim really has to work it.

2) The second movement of the piano sonata should sound very familiar. Probably the second most familiar behind the opening movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (Sonata #14).

3) One commenter in this blog amusingly said that Beethoven wrote his symphonies as if his amplifiers were turned up to 11. Beethoven's piano sonatas are more modest in scale and quite a bit less overcharged.

4) One listen to almost any work by Tchaikovsky and you can see why brass players universally love performing his music. Really good parts for everybody, from tuba to trumpet. That's why it's a particular pleasure to hear the giants of the Chicago Symphony play a piece like this. The principal trumpet could stand to lay off the vibrato though.

5) Notice the unusual meter of the second movement. It seems at first like a 3/4 time waltz, which is a typical meter for middle movements of a symphony, but it's actually in 5/4 time. Tchaikovsky was always throwing away the rulebook.

6) What a rollicking third movement! Not much pathos there. But just wait until the fourth movement--you'll get your pathos then, especially at the very end.

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