Still Oblique to the Pathétique

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

A confession: sometimes, when I am moping along a footpath through an oncoming rush of rage-inducing text-walkers, the gaudy jackets of a team of charity fundraisers will appear up ahead and – like the markings on a poison dart frog – warn me of imminent danger. I feel the icy hand of Panic seize the wheel, and fuelled by the fear of an unsolicited and entirely unwanted human interaction, I will go to embarrassing lengths to avoid this confrontation. Whole minutes – minutes! – have been added to travel times because my fight-or-flight instinct takes over in the presence of all that fake cheer and induced guilt, and I am compelled to cross the road or divert through a shopping centre or – in the worst case scenario – appear to suffer a momentary but total loss of hearing. All because a worthy cause has found an awkward way of asking people for money. Timing is everything.

I make this not-entirely-true confession hoping that some of you out there may share this shame, and yet Caution is reading over my shoulder, reminding me to be wary of what I admit to. Once, when rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 “Pathétique” in a youth orchestra, I gave voice to my dislike of the symphony, particularly the first movement and its famous lyrical melody. I recall that many ‘s’ words were flung, including sentimental, saccharine, and superficial. Perhaps one other you can think of, if you wish it.

My admission was not warmly received and the accusation ‘you have no soul’, normally just water off a redheaded duck’s back, was offered for my consideration. I did consider it, before stubbornly agreeing with myself and waddling off to enjoy my siege mentality alone. I have stood by my assessment of the Pathétique for many years, and it made a cosy partner to my opinion of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations as the most unendurable cello-with-orchestra piece in the repertoire.

All of which is to say, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis were up against it on March 18 when they performed this very symphony, in a concert also featuring superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. I wanted to enjoy it at last, truly I did, even doing some research – research! – in the hope that the tiny brushstrokes of new knowledge could dust off any ignorance and dig up my long-lost Tchaikovskian soul. If I could survive the first movement’s recurring melody without gaining a mouthful of cavities, I suspected I could become engrossed in the performance, or even be moved. That is why I detour my way to concerts in the first place, after all.

My hope was somewhat misdirected. I expected the last movement Adagio lamentoso to be the most affecting, but found that the relatively brisk tempo preferred by Davis, while refreshing in an interpretive sense, weakened its pathos. He had asked the audience to refrain from spontaneous applause at the end of the third movement, a common by-product of the movement’s typically Tchaik-like bombast, thus allowing a direct plunge into the anguish of the finale. It was a much-appreciated gesture and yet, as the lament outpaced its ability to unlock my own lumbering emotions, I wondered if it was being propelled by the same adrenaline that usually fuels (and is burned up by) an unsanctioned burst of applause. It didn’t exactly leave me cold, but as the music fades to the black of a possibly eternal sleep, I had been left behind in the gloaming.

Nevertheless, the playing of the orchestra was as good as I have heard them sound, and I was engrossed. The strings were impassioned and sumptuous, achieving a vigorous richness from back desks to front, and the wind and brass sections were replete with excellence, including several individual cameos of the highest quality throughout the concert.

One such cameo, the famous bassoon solo at the beginning of the Pathétique, ushered in my biggest surprise of the night: a thoroughly riveting first movement. Could it be that here was a performance so captivating that it upended all of my crass opinions about the symphony, thereby releasing my soul from its purgatory of wilful, since-youth ignorance?

For narrative purposes that would be ideal, but alas I have no story of redemption to thread through this tale. I was enjoying the performance so much, in fact, that when we arrived at the final return of the lyrical theme – the moment that has always bothered me the most – I was more disappointed than ever.

Listen to it now, I ask you. Take Tchaikovsky’s hand in the ominous opening Adagio, follow him as he sets off in the Allegro non troppo, turbulent and urgent, before unfurling that huge theme. It’s quite reassuring the first time, after the darkness and stress that preceded it. It goes on a bit, you might agree, and you may be sick of it by the time he turns it up to ten, unleashing all the dogs of sentiment to chase a scale up the octave for another pass at the melody. Finally it peters out in the clarinet, a moment of calm that Tchaikovsky shatters with a violent development section, building to a climax of brass brutality that will leave you beaten and bruised on the floor. It is genuinely epic, especially in the concert hall, and when it ends with a pause after the final blow, Davis and the MSO had me holding my breath.

And then…that bloody melody comes back. Just like that. No preparation or significant metamorphosis. Yes the accompaniment is a bit different, but essentially it is unchanged – unchanged! – despite the ordeal we’ve just been through. According to some, that is precisely the point, and I do know that. In the development, Tchaikovsky quotes unambiguously from the song With The Saints Give Rest and by following this clue, scholars have suggested that the rhythm of the lyrical melody aligns with another section of the song, a section with words meaning ‘but life everlasting’ (no zhi-zn’ bes-ko-nech-na-ya, for those listening along).

It’s a plausible supposition, but this knowledge can’t alter the impact on me. It feels like a betrayal of your commitment to becoming emotionally involved, the symphonic equivalent of someone saying ‘high five!’ and then leaving you with your arm hanging in the air like a plonk. You’ll look around sheepishly and casually morph your hanging hand into a not-fooling-anyone stretch, but learning the reasons for your abandonment won’t lessen the burn in your cheeks.

I feel a little rosy of cheek now, in fact, wondering if anyone else feels this way. I guess Caution got bored and left me to expose my unpopular opinion all over again. I had hoped for a transformation, but the MSO’s excellence only confirmed my bias and proved that some tastes don’t change with age. I can’t be surprised; any time I hear John Farnham’s You’re the Voice I am as much filled with revolutionary fervour as when I was eight-years-old.

I shall lean on that song as the accusations of soullessness come dripping in, my only regret being that I didn’t say anything about the Strauss, or the spectacular Daniil Trifonov, or about the video that was played to the audience at the beginning of the concert, with the lights down and the orchestra on stage. Two of those things were thrilling experiences in a concert hall, and the other was a worthy cause finding an awkward way to ask people for money. Timing is everything.

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