The French "pathetique" -- the title to which Tchaikovsky agreed for his last and greatest symphony -- is not adequately translated by the English "pathetic." It suggests nothing simpering or sentimental; it is a word whose meanings are more meaningfully captured by "tragic" and "dramatic."
Fortunately that is exactly the way that Stanislaw Skrowaczewski interpreted Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last night in Meyerhoff Hall.
This performance announced its intentions in the first movement: an opening that was sepulchral rather than sentimental; a treatment of the movement's famous second subject melody that was warm and passionate; a tremendous entry by the brass that launched the music -- even though one knew what to expect -- into unexpected frenzy; and a coda in which the pulse of the strings over a descending scale in the brass beat with palpable but expiring life.
Skrowaczewski is, of course, a familiar figure to American audiences. He was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra between 1960 and 1979 -- what were probably its best years in the post-World War II period; he is a sought-after guest conductor; and his recordings are respected. But he is now almost 72 years old, and this concert suggested a flowering that is not uncommon among conductors in their eighth decade who have been responsible to the talent entrusted to them. The three succeeding movements of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony were as beautifully detailed as the first had been, had as much note-to-note tensile strength and generated just as much sweep.
Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, the major work on the program's first half, was nearly as persuasive. This was a reading much in the Toscanini-Szell mold: a lean, incisive sound that did not eschew warmth; an often thrilling first movement in which the music's sense of mystery was not shortchanged; and a performance of the second and final movement in which the music's sunlit radiance was disturbed by shadows.
Only the opening Rossini overture to "Il viaggio a Reims" -- a performance that missed the music's sense of the ridiculous -- was a disappointment. Conductor and orchestra clearly had their minds set on the bigger things to follow.
The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Sunday at 3 p.m.