If one is searching for an extra-musical heading under which to bracket the con- tent of the Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 & 6 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one cannot really avoid the word “fate”. Personal fate, to be exact. Thus his Symphony No. 4 (1876-78) was a frank confession straight from the soul, a subtle psychological portrait printed on paper. In a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he talked of “fate, this disastrous power, which prevents our urgent desire for happiness from achieving its objective”. After this, a further 11 years passed before Tchaikovsky attempted to compose another “purely” symphonic work – his Symphony No. 5.
When at last it was revealed what Mahler’s final intentions were regarding the ordering of the inner movements of his 6th Symphony, 90 years of theory, history, & performance practice went right out the window. For theorists, it altered the harmonic structure of Mahler’s A minor Symphony. For historians, it modified the meaning of Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony. For players & conductors, it changed the musical progress of Mahler’s 6th Symphony. For listeners, it made Mahler’s deepest & darkest symphony even deeper & darker. With the achingly nostalgic Andante moderato now coming before the bitingly bitter Scherzo, the triumph of the opening Allegro energico sounds even more hollow & empty & the collapse of the closing Allegro moderato sounds even more final & total.
The late Alfred Schnittke has, after his death, been accused of writing too much music of variable quality. This debate is still raging although suffice to say that the Eighth Symphony truly is one of his greatest works and indeed, one of the great symphonic works of the latter twentieth century. The charge of oppressive asceticism laid against the Sixth and Seventh symphonies can hardly be held up to this expansive and frankly emotional work. It is as if Schnittke relaxed the skeletal sounds of his previous essays in the genre and, while not quite returning to the dazzling orchestral pyrotechnics of the Fifth Symphony (Concerto Grosso no. 4), creating a work of great sincerity and beauty. The first movement is an obsessive repetition of a wide-ranging (in pitch, not rhythm) melody, seemingly effortlessly varied to touch on all sections of the orchestra.
Fischer’s performance of the Sixth is quite similar to Abbado’s recent live recording for DG. Textures are generally light and transparent, with a swift opening march that, by the same token, never sounds unduly rushed or trivialized. The andante comes second, not the best option in my view, but Fischer has the intelligence to treat it as a true andante, and not as an adagio (which is a more legitimate possibility when it’s placed third). However, in contrast to Abbado’s boring Berliners, Fischer’s orchestra plays better, and he’s much better recorded. Just listen to the characterful brass in the coda of the first movement, with a particularly fine first trumpet, or the splendid woodwinds in the trios of the scherzo. The emphasis on fleetness never compromises expressivity, as happens in Berlin.