Symphonies Nos. 1–6.
Manfred Symphony. Marche slave. Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn. 1812 Overture. Fatum. Romeo and Juliet. Francesca da Rimini. Hamlet. Capriccio Italien. The Voyevoda. The Tempest
Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Natl O
DG 477 8699 (7 CDs: 490:14)
Deutsche Grammophon has collected Mikhail Pletnev’s excellent mid-1990s cycles of the Tchaikovsky symphonies and symphonic poems (the latter including the “public, occasional pieces,” as annotator David Nice calls them, such as
) into a big box selling new on Amazon at just over $4.00 a disc. Each symphony, including
, is complete on a single disc, with one or two of the shorter works as fillers.
Collectors who remember the Soviet orchestral LPs of the 1970s conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov and Gennady Rozhdestvensky will be astonished at the tonal beauty of both the performances and the recordings. Pletnev’s overall aesthetic here seems to dictate a sound that builds from the bottom of the orchestra up, and features absolutely flawless blend and intonation in the woodwinds. Pletnev also tends to favor legato phrasing in a manner reminiscent of Herbert von Karajan, but his readings of the symphonies are far more dynamic than the Bruckneresque treatments of the German maestro.
The First Symphony, “Winter Daydreams,” opens in a more deliberate tempo than usual, and the mood is somewhat darker than that to which we’ve become accustomed in readings such as Lorin Maazel’s outstanding Vienna Philharmonic recording on Decca; it’s a reminder that winters are colder in Moscow than in Vienna. One is struck also by the recorded sound, which is full-bodied, open, and transparent. Pletnev’s reading is one of real integrity and consistency, very different from Maazel’s approach but not heavy-handed like Karajan’s or Eugene Ormandy’s, to cite two top-flight conductors who adopted the early symphonies late in their careers. The Second, “Little Russian” (i.e., Ukrainian), features a dynamic first movement and a scherzo that’s wonderfully precise. In the repetitious finale Pletnev never lets the music flag. In the Third, which has assumed the inaccurate subtitle of “Polish,” the introduction is perhaps too deliberate, but the main body of the first movement is energetic and festive, with lovely woodwind solos. The second movement strikes the perfect balance between lightness and expressiveness; in the third, the central
is beautifully played. The fourth-movement scherzo features great woodwind virtuosity, but never makes this an end in and of itself, and the finale avoids being crass. Like the best versions of this symphony (Maazel and, a generation earlier, Beecham), this reading makes the music sound totally convincing.
For collectors already owning strong versions of the “big three” symphonies, Pletnev’s accounts may not trump previous favorites, but they offer valid alternatives. The Fourth has an impressive opening paragraph, building gradually in intensity, but the overall temperature of the movement is a bit cool. Pletnev takes one “cheap shot”: the huge, unwritten ritardando in the brass fanfares just preceding the final statement of the main theme. Movements 2–4 are for the most part compelling, but the first movement—at 18:49, exactly tied with the first movement of the “Pathétique” for the longest in any of the symphonies—is the touchstone here, and it falls a bit short. The Fifth features a brisk, no-nonsense reading of the first movement, and the second-movement horn solo features a tasteful vibrato (in contrast to the braying of the old Soviet horns). The “Pathétique” is the one interpretation that disappoints: The first movement, following a portentous introduction, is too matter-of-fact, and the third-movement march is ridiculously fast at 8:07, robbing the music of its ferocity at the climax. And, for once, the
finale brings some ugly sounds from the brass.
, the earliest recording here (1993), is well played but features some questionable interpretive decisions. The sprawling first movement seems unusually episodic, and while Pletnev plays with the tempos of the fourth-movement opening, the main body of the movement strikes me as inflexible. This reading fails to unseat Markevitch (still available from ArkivMusic on the EMI/IMG “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series) as my version of choice.
The shorter works are uneven as compositions, but Pletnev makes a good case for most of them. For once,
is played as a serious piece, not a potboiler, and, thankfully, “God Save the Czar” is restored after the radical surgery performed during the Soviet era. Likewise,
is played without gimmicks. The two weakest scores are the
Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn
, 15 minutes of bombast, and
, an 1868 work that Tchaikovsky wisely destroyed, only to have a set of parts survive and the score reconstructed after his death. Pletnev and his orchestra do what they can to salvage some music from it.
Romeo and Juliet
features a wonderful woodwind blend in the introduction and innumerable felicities throughout, while
Francesca da Rimini
is a performance of great contrasts, with a wickedly fast
. Only the
needs to be more flamboyant; in particular, Pletnev drags out the opening section too much.
Quibbles such as these aside, this is as good a gathering of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and programmatic orchestral works (omitting the Serenade for Strings, the ballets, and the suites for orchestra) as I know. Especially at the price, not to be missed.
Richard A. Kaplan