Since its orchestral debut in 1893, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” has been a musical mystery. The performance was well received by critics, yet nine days after its premiere, Tchaikovsky mysteriously died from cholera. Some consider the symphony a suicide note written out of sexual frustration, while others believe it was merely a coincidence. Regardless, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” was his final piece, twisted with felicity and despair.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony along with Dvorak’s “Noonday Witch” and Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major” at the San Francisco Symphony on Oct. 12. Under the leadership of conductor and artistic advisor Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic explored the minds of Dvorak, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, three composers who wrote their pieces in different parts of their lives — while Tchaikovsky was on the verge of death, Prokofiev was on the verge of superstardom. Dvorak was losing popularity in the United States and decided to return to his home, the Czech Republic. The London Philharmonic expertly combined the works of these three composers into one cohesive performance, weaving together tales of failure, repent and innocence.
Before diving into “Pathetique,” the London Philharmonic began with Antonin Dvorak’s “Noonday Witch,” which was inspired by a Slavic fairy tale about a demon who takes misbehaving children far away. Every note placed in this symphonic poem is playful, fun and somewhat mischievous. The frequent use of pizzicato strings evoked touches of innocence that reverberate throughout the piece, leading to an explosive finale with lingering aftershock.
Jurowski introduced pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet for the next piece, Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major.” A talented pianist with the heart and character of Victor Borge, Bavouzet played in perfect balance with the symphony. Bavouzet and Jurowski were completely in sync, seamlessly flowing from piano to string to clarinet solos. The conductor dramatically transitions into the second movement, filled with recurring motifs of sun and sadness through Bavouzet’s fingers. The pianist peaks in the third movement, delivering immaculate glissandos in quick succession, seemingly battling with the orchestra for attention. Prokofiev’s concerto ends with a melodic ceasefire between strings and piano, both unified in voice for a satisfying conclusion. Bavouzet casually exited the hall after many standing ovations, only to return to perform an encore: a short, physically demanding and untitled piece.
After intermission, Jurowski returned to perform “Pathetique.” A four-movement masterpiece, “Pathetique” flows much like Tchaikovsky’s life. In the first movement, Jurowski begins with a steady tempo, carefully adjusting the volume ever so slightly. The percussion shines through the first movement due to the direction of Simon Carrington on timpani and Andrew Barclay as principle chair.
The second movement continues to expand on melodies presented in the first, with a focus on woodwinds. The orchestra elegantly begins to simultaneously juxtapose lower and higher scales with no hesitation, leaving fragments of old themes within the background. The woodwinds dominate in this movement, completely carrying the melody.
By the third movement, Jurowski captures the essence of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.” The movement opens with a motion among the strings, while the horns maintain rhythm. Fanfares grow louder and fuller, expanding by the second, leading to a magnificent climax of powerful horns and percussion.
The fourth movement begins with a pensive melody built from strings but rapidly spirals into a turbulence of emotion. Jurowski brilliantly blends hope with despair through the strings, percussion and woodwinds, truly encompassing human emotion. While the strings are devastating and the overtures are immaculate, the ending is nostalgic for the first movement, returning to the point where it all began. The last notes feel like a heartbeat, slowly fading to silence.
“Pathetique” was Tchaikovsky’s last piece, a destructive yet divine end to a musical great’s career. Through the work of Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one felt more connected with the human spirit. Audience members witnessed the growth of a musical genius, his rise to fame and his final resolution, “Pathetique:” the piece of his soul he left behind.