BWW Interview: Conductor David Bernard Chats New Recording of Tchaikovsky's PATHETIQUE on Recursive Classics
Recursive Classics' latest release features David Bernard leading the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. BWW ClassicalWorld took some time to discuss the Pathétique with Maestro Bernard.
CLASSICAL WORLD: Your two previous recordings featured monumental works-Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now, your focus is on Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. What drew you to this work?
DAVID BERNARD: Tchaikovsky poured his soul into the Pathétique, with a musical language that not only conveys, but compels you to feel Tchaikovsky's emotional transformations throughout the score, at its end leaving you drained from the empathy the work demands. The visceral connection between performers and listeners created by the Pathétique is exhilarating for me. There is nothing like it.
CW: To this day there is quite a bit of discussion, and disagreement, about Tchaikovsky's inspiration to compose the Pathétique. The original thinking - that the symphony was written as a 'suicide note' that preceded Tchaikovsky taking his own life due to his despondence over his homosexuality, has been refuted by experts claiming homosexuality was accepted by Russian society and that the case for suicide was weak. How did the Pathétique take on this controversy that has lasted over 100 years?
DB: The Pathétique has a colourful mythology that surrounds it, created in part by Tchaikovsky himself. Tchaikovsky toyed with the public on the Pathétique's meaning, proclaiming an underlying program existed, but refusing to disclose it. His death just after the work's premiere brought a perfect storm of mystery and intrigue, leaving an imaginative public to construct their own theories for the meaning of the Pathétique, with some proclaiming this was his suicide note. It is not uncommon for works written closest to a composer's death to take on outsized drama---Mozart's Requiem is a good example of this.
CW: How does this affect performances of the Pathétique?
DB: The Pathétique's mythology can be a strong influence to see each and every phrase as an opportunity to express mournful longing. I don't find this especially helpful to the work, as repetitive rubato and excessively slow tempi dilute its intense narrative.
CW: So then, the 'symphony as a suicide note' is a myth?
DB: The 'suicide note' theory is certainly questionable. The Pathétique's immense scale and relentless passion demands a life force in the composer that simply could not exist inside a person resigned to take his own life, and it isn't even a foregone conclusion that Tchaikovsky committed suicide in the first place. The work seems to speak for itself. In the first three movements, Tchaikovsky is reimagining his earlier works in a new-found artistic voice through a more mature and effective lens. For starters, the first movement is directly tied to his 'Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture'.
CW: Well, both the first movement of the Pathétique and Romeo and Juliet are brilliant works, and they are both in b minor.
DB: Yes they are, and they both feature a famed and beloved lyrical theme. More significantly, they are structurally similar - both suddenly launching into relentlessly driven episodes that lead through a passionate retelling of the lyrical theme with an epilogue through which the narrative's energy is released. The relationship is unmistakable. But there is an important difference. As beautiful as Romeo and Juliet is, the first movement of Pathétique seems more spontaneous and genuine, as though it were driven by a single lightning bolt of inspiration. As it turns out Tchaikovsky wrote the first movement of the Pathétique in five days in one continuous stream of consciousness, compared to the arduous and protracted eleven year process of writing Romeo and Juliet during which time Tchaikovsky was berated at the hands of his mentor Balakirev. You can hear both the structural similarities and the differences clearly in the music.
CW: This takes us to the second movement, a waltz in 5/4 that is often noted as being odd-even sometimes referred to as a joke.
DB: It does seem odd when the tempo is relatively slow, drawing attention the quarter note pulse in 5. But at a faster tempo, a light half note lifted pulse emerges at the ends of each 5/4 measure, gliding the listener from beginning to end, with Tchaikovsky recalling his ballet waltzes. The result is a waltz in 5 that is lighter and more graceful than most waltzes in 3. This is certainly not a joke-it is an innovation.
CW: The third movement, sounding like a finale, frequently ends in applauds in between the third and fourth movements. Have you experienced this?
DB: Audiences often burst into applauds at that point, requiring a bit of time to quiet and prepare the room before starting the fourth movement. And yes, the third movement does sound like a finale. This is Tchaikovsky reimagining his symphonic finales from his fourth and fifth symphonies. As with the first movement, the finale of the Pathétique seems more directed and genuine than his earlier examples. Here Tchaikovsky brings an unceasing energy that drives relentlessly to an ending that is as inevitable as it is exciting.
CW: Some say the fourth movement is anti-climactic following the exciting third movement.
DB: I couldn't disagree more. The ending is absolutely perfect. While the first three movements offer a look back, the Finale looks inward to the present, conveying Tchaikovsky's growing awareness of his mortality-portraying Tchaikovsky's emotional transformation through riveting chromaticism. It is here where the entire program of the Pathétique comes into focus gradually, note-by-note, with us-and Tchaikovsky-achieving closure in the silence that follows. This isn't a suicide note. Here Tchaikovsky coming to terms with his mortality at the same moment he has found his voice. The ending unfolds through a profoundly moving combination of emotions that is unforgettable.
CW: Thank you for insights into Tchaikovsky's Pathétique.
David Bernard's recording of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique will be released on January 12, 2018, and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.