Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.1; Marche Slave
Mikhail Pletnev/ Russian National Orchestra (PentaTone)
Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra are busily re-recording Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. His earlier cycle for Deutsche Grammophon dates from the mid-1990s and garnered praise, albeit with caveats about his sometimes idiosyncratic interpretations. Pletnev has always been something of an enigmatic musician, either as pianist or conductor; his aloof platform manner can hint at disengagement and he often seems embarrassed at applause, but when everything clicks there’s an intensity about his music-making which can be thrilling. This disc pairs Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, whose subtitle is usually translated as “Winter Daydreams” (although “Winter Reveries” is a more accurate translation of “Zimniye gryozy”) with the Marche Slave.
Idiosyncrasies become apparent from the very first bars of the symphony. They are marked Allegro tranquillo, with a metronome marking of crotchet=132 and Pletnev sets off at a soporific tempo more akin to crotchet=84 with nothing particularly Allegro – or lively – in evidence. The opening phrases from the RNO’s first flute and bassoon are clearly articulated, but seem to be going nowhere in a hurry – a cautious tread across the icy wastes. At rehearsal mark C (2’19”), Tchaikovsky asks for a slight increase in speed (Poco più animato), but by this point Pletnev has already nudged things on. The gentle clarinet solo (3’00”) marked espressivo is taken very slowly – espressivo should not necessarily indicate a change of tempo. Diminuendi are confused with rallentandos, leading to the fermata pause (E, bar 28, 4’19”), following which Pletnev whips up the pace – it’s thrilling playing and undoubtedly an exciting listen, but it’s not really what Tchaikovsky wrote. Listening again to Mariss Jansons’ recording with the Oslo Philharmonic (still as fresh as a mountain stream after 27 years) or the more recent live set from Oleg Caetani and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, one notes how both conductors are much stricter about tempos, with more bracing results. Pletnev veers between a gallop and a crawl; his earlier DG recording was also prone to variable tempos, but not to this extent. Even though he’s much slower off the blocks this time, he still breasts the finishing tape at 13’19”, ahead of his 1995 benchmark of 13’32”. Jansons (11’45”) and Caetani (11’17”) are already home and dusting the snow off their boots.
It would be easy to dismiss this recording on the basis of that first movement alone, were the playing of the RNO not so darned magnificent and the erratic speeds so giddying. In fairness, Pletnev plays the three ensuing movements with a ‘straight bat’; the second movement’s “Land of Desolation, Land of Mist” has warmly expressive violas taking over the cantabile oboe theme, while the Scherzo, which contains the first of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral waltzes, is light and graceful, punctuated by elfin woodwinds. After an introduction to the finale which emphasises the lugubrious aspect of Andante lugubre, Pletnev is strongly rhythmic when it gets to the Allegro moderato, based on the Russian folksong The Garden Bloomed, if not as unbuttoned as Caetani when it comes to bringing everything to a joyous conclusion.
Pletnev and the RNO have recorded the Marche Slave twice before, on Virgin and on a highly recommendable DG Trio. The new performance is just as convincing, with the tempos judged just right to give a thrilling sense of propulsion, especially the timpani thwacks and perky theme for clarinets at the Più mosso; Allegro section (7’08”) which goes with a real swing, meaning the incursion of the Tsarist national anthem cuts in with crushing fervour, the explosive tam-tam marvellously caught by the engineers.
The only blemish in the SACD recording lies in the Symphony, when the timpani solo towards the end of the third movement is a little cloudy and lacking ideal focus. Otherwise, Pentatone offers impressive sound, rather heavy on the rear surround channels, but with clarity too. I would recommend sampling the first track of the disc to see if Pletnev’s way with the “Winter Daydreams” suits before proceeding, but ultimately I enjoyed this disc a great deal.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.1 ‘Winter Daydreams’; Marche Slave; Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev (Pentatone – PTC 5186381)
Mikhail Pletnev/ Russian National Orchestra (DG, 5 discs) 449 967-2 (1995)
Mariss Jansons/ Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos) CHAN 8672/8 (1985)
Oleg Caetani/ Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (ABC Classics, 6 discs) 476 6442 (2007)
Mikhail Pletnev/ Russian National Orchestra (DG, 3 discs) 477 053-2 (1996)
This review originally appeared in IRR.