Glittering Swan Lake from Pletnev and the RNO

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake 

Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra (Ondine)

swan-lake-pletnev-ondineOne of the highlights of Mikhail Pletnev’s relationship with DG was undoubtedly The Sleeping Beauty with the Russian National Orchestra. A decade on, and making their debut with Ondine, this partnership returns to Tchaikovsky ballets with a splendid new recording of Swan Lake. Pletnev is in his element here; tempi are usually on the quick side, although rhythms are well sprung, and his red-blooded approach is perfectly suited to what is Tchaikovsky’s most vital, dramatic ballet score, as opposed to the symphonic sweep of The Sleeping Beauty or the magical confection which is The Nutcracker.

The Act I Introduction opens lugubriously, the RNO oboe, so important in this score, sounding a melancholic tone, but Pletnev grabs the listener by the lapels with the Allegro ma non troppo at Fig. C (1’45”) which is packed with drama. From that point, you can immediately sense what sort of performance this is going to be. The Waltz swings along in a carefree manner, concluding with a real romp to the finish. The Pas de deux (No.5 in the score) is placed numerically here, although many readers will associate it with the Act III Black Swan (Gergiev moves it there). It’s hard to imagine Darcey Bussell flinging out the 32 fouettés en tournant in the Coda at the speed Pletnev’s orchestra launches into, but it makes for tremendous excitement.

The playing has poetry too. The Act II Danse des cygnes is atmospheric, the pas d’action between Odette and the prince benefiting from tender phrasing and muscular playing from the RNO’s (shamefully unnamed) leader. Pletnev never resorts to wallowing, keeping the tension of the situation alive. It is unfortunate that the timings mean the closing Scène of Act II is shunted to open the second disc.

There is plenty of glitter in the four Act III national dances, while the courtly music is pushed along briskly. Pletnev’s accelerandos, such as that in the closing Scène of Act III, when Siegfried realises that Rothbart has duped him and he has, in turn, betrayed Odette, come off brilliantly (2’07”) as does the unmarked ritenuto leading to the coda (bar 75, 2’39”).

Pletnev’s conducting of the short Act IV is well judged, returning to the delicate balance between poise and turmoil of Act II, the other lakeside action in the ballet. The RNO captures the limpid poignancy of the Danse des petits cygnes, while the playing leading to the denouement summons up the urgency required. Pletnev takes the ‘swan theme’ of the closing pages slowly, achieving a cataclysmic finale of great power.

Ondine’s recording is extremely fine, with quite a strong bass presence, which certainly adds to the dramatic impression of this interpretation. Orchestral balance is achieved well, so that the string pizzicatos, even in the Black Swan coda, are absolutely clear. Percussion make the necessary impact, often to thrilling effect. Ondine includes an interesting booklet note by Malcolm MacDonald covering the history and reception of the ballet, as well as a synopsis (not cued) and a short but welcome note about Tchaikovsky’s musical style.

Competition is fierce, especially in the form of Dutoit in Montreal and Ermler in the pit at Covent Garden. The Royal Opera House recording (originally issued via Conifer) is now happily available again at budget price from Sony and has, if anything, an even more red-blooded recording than Ondine’s; the orchestra, under Ermler, play out of their skins, although tempos don’t have quite the dramatic contrast Pletnev achieves. Gergiev’s strangely uninvolved, brusque Decca recording needn’t detain us long, being compromised by a performing edition which butchers the score and includes Riccardo Drigo’s bizarre interpolations which wouldn’t hold attention even if presented as an appendix. Dutoit’s Decca recording has refined playing, as one would expect from this partnership, and benefits from the eloquent violin solos of Chantal Juillet (the new Mrs Dutoit and the MSO’s Leader in the early ‘90s). However, Dutoit doesn’t quite find the passion Pletnev discovers in abundance in Tchaikovsky’s score. It’s good to hear Pletnev and the RNO back on this sort of form and his recording would join Ermler’s as my chief recommendations for this ballet.

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake; Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev (Ondine ODE 1167-2D)
Charles Dutoit/ Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (2 discs, Decca) 436 212-2 (1991)
Mark Ermler/ Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (2 discs, ROH) ROH 301/3 (1989)
Valery Gergiev/ Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (2 discs, Decca) 475 7669 (2006)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

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