Moore Tchaikovsky Complete Symphonies Pletnev Brilliant

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Complete Symphonies
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. 2010-13, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia
Brilliant Classics 97083 [7 CDs: 409]

Originally issued individually between 2011 and 2014, then in a box set in 2015 on the Pentatone label now repackaged in a bargain box with an extensive notes booklet, this was very fully and favourably reviewed by Simon Thompson, who designated it as a Recording of the Month in October 2015. Not only does it contain the six symphonies but there are bonuses of the five symphonic poems, the original version of the first movement of the ‘Little Russian’ and the Manfred Symphony in its original, best and uncut version.

I have always considered Pletnev to be something of a maverick both as a conductor and a pianist; for example, I very much like his set of the Beethoven piano concertos while acknowledging that he takes some debatable liberties with the scores. This collection of major Tchaikovsky works is somewhat different in that, if anything, he is more restrained and refined than many an interpreter. That is not to say that these recordings are deficient in impact or excitement, and Pletnev’s tempi are almost invariably on the urgent side, but he does not always give the phrasing the same weight as more extrovert conductors.  

Brilliant also issued an excellent bargain box of Tchaikovsky symphonies back in 2012 which was an assemblage by several Russian conductors – Fedoseyev, Simonov, Temirkanov and Rozhdestvensky. I reviewed that very favourably and it would have made sense to reference that as a comparative yardstick, but it is currently unavailable, so I am simply considering these recordings on their own merits, as there are otherwise too many options to make very meaningful comparisons.

The opening of Winter Dreams (No. 1) is delicately and charmingly delineated before it turns to more dramatic declaration and I am immediately struck not only by the refinement of the playing and direction but the richness of the recorded sound. There is no lack of drive or propulsion in the development section and the execution is restrained and sophisticated – none of the old Russian style “bull elephant” brass or excessively Romantic, vibrato-laden braying (which, I hasten to add, can be great…). This is surely an undervalued work and Pletnev presents a persuasive case for its esteem; his approach is immeasurably enhanced by the beauty of Pentatone’s engineering which allows every instrumental line to be heard in rich, full, deep and detailed sound. Pletnev is also judicious in his choice of performance style; he does not try to present Winter Dreams as if it were the Pathétique; despite some superficial thematic resemblance – “Land of Desolation” – they are separated by over a quarter of a century and a lifetime’s experience, so he does not overdo its tragic potential but emphasises its charm. Thus the Scherzo is more impish than demonic, although the finale starts mysteriously and contains by far the darkest and most mature music in the symphony, looking forward to Tchaikovsky’s later works in terms of musical complexity, emotional profundity and sheer impact.

The introduction to the Little Russian is soulful and melancholy, always suggestive of approaching crisis and the ensuing Allegro provides many opportunities for individual wind and brass soloists to demonstrate their proficiency in executing Tchaikovsky’s colourful orchestration. The bonus is the original, longer version of the first movement, illustrating how Tchaikovsky tightened its structure and intensified its dramatic impact – but it is still involving, exciting music and in some ways I prefer its prolonged and unshorn splendour – excess, even. The perky second movement march very clearly anticipates the almost identical theme in the Allegro molto vivace of the Pathétique and the Scherzo barrels along engagingly. Best of all is the grand finale – a real tour de force played with tremendous bravado – Pletnev just makes this music such whirlwind  fun.

The enigmatic opening to the first of the five movements in the Polish symphony is subtly played and Pletnev only gradually lets the orchestra off the leash over the long span, but always increasing torque until the exhilarating conclusion. I do not find this to be the most inventive movement in Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output – indeed, I think the symphony overall is his weakest in the genre, but Pletnev gives it best advocacy and the orchestra adroitly handles the daringly fast tempo he adopts. As ST remarks, the second Alla tedesca movement is essentially light and balletic in mood; the Andante third movement is more serious and reflective with an ambivalent coda, and is well served by the rich sonorities of the Russian National Orchestra even if it is not Tchaikovsky’s most memorable music. The Scherzo dances fantastically in Mendelssohnian style, executed with so light a touch that it is over all too soon. The finale is vivacious, its fugal sections very adeptly despatched and culminating in another imposing peroration over an extended drum roll.

Symphony No. 4 is a greater work than its predecessor and Pletnev pins back the listener’s ears from the start. He first drives the music hard but relaxes for the waltzing second subject with the flute noodlings, then the reprise of the fate motif half way through rings out with baleful portent and the tension never lets up until the tragic end – quite some feat; even the return of the waltz theme sounds vaguely mocking and ironic, being played so gently. After such turmoil, the melodiousness of the Andantino is initially comforting but the shadows gather. The pizzicato Scherzo is as fleet and well-coordinated as you could wish – and lightens the mood, albeit temporarily. Pletnev takes no prisoners in the finale, immediately setting a very fast pace to which his orchestra responds effortlessly; this makes a gripping, compact, flawlessly played conclusion to what is essentially a perfect account.

Whatever the merits of the other works, a box set such as this must stand or fall by the quality of the two great final symphonies. The competition is numerous and august; my more recent favourites in addition to Karajan et al are Honeck in the Fifth (review) and Currentzis in the Sixth. Pletnev lets the clarinet solo which starts the Fifth just creep in moodily like a sulking child – it is very atmospheric. The tension builds and the horns intone magisterially against warm strings, then Pletnev pulls back in tempo and dynamics; the ebb and flow of his direction is quite blatant but it works. The lyrical middle section is glorious and the climax spirals down into blackness, prefiguring the end of the Pathétique.The horn solo opening the slow movement has a dusky, grainy timbre almost reminiscent of a Northern brass band – sad and haunting. The movement as a whole is freely rhapsodic and moving. The waltz is elegant; the finale daring in its agogic variability; Pletnev veers between frenetic haste and marmoreal ponderousness – and it makes for a heck of a ride, perhaps distracting from what some see as an artificially imposed triumphalism in the coda, the listener having been too busy wondering what Pletnev will do next to ponder such philosophical niceties.

The Pathétique is incongruously paired with the Capriccio Italien on CD 6 – not, of course, that it matters, but you certainly don’t want to move straight on to that sun-drenched celebration having just disappeared into the Black Hole which is the conclusion to the symphony. Pletnev’s introduction is very slow and bleak; the violas sing morosely, then scramble wildly (but unanimously) as if in panic; this is indeed, as ST observes, a “psychological thriller”. Pletnev may be extravagant in his choice of speeds but I still get the sense of an overview, especially in that disproportionately long first movement and I am caught up in his narrative. It helps that as ever the orchestral playing is always so beautiful. The explosion exactly ten minutes in elicits accompanying exhortative grunts from the conductor – a mild irritation occurring intermittently throughout these recordings, but nothing as compared with serial offenders like Colin Davis – and the brass and timpani intone despairingly. Pletnev captures beautifully the sad resignation of the pizzicato conclusion; by contrast, the strange “wooden-legged waltz” is almost cheery – and the depth of misery plumbed by the two outer movements of this symphony sandwiching the two Allegros makes it is easy to forget that those central movements are in fact upbeat  – unless one detects an element of enforced gaiety. Biographical evidence suggests that Tchaikovsky was by no means always in a depressive state while writing it, nor indeed that he was contemplating suicide and Pletnev makes them thrillingly exciting and propulsive. But my goodness, how those string sob and sigh in the finale. I reviewed Karajan’s DG recording in 2021 and while I marginally prefer his earlier EMI version, there is little in it and what I wrote of his treatment of this last movement equally applies to Pletnev’s, so permit me to reproduce it here: “Karajan expertly charts the sorry narrative of this movement: the first quarter depicts a spiralling down into despond, then a ray of hope breaks through in a consolatory theme suggesting a courageous struggle against the demons until the half-way mark, after which, the third quarter destroys that hope and plunges us into the crisis of total despair, and the final section is a funereal dirge which descends into black nothingness.” Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra are just as good – which is as big a compliment as I can pay. If anything, his snarling brass are even more unsettling.

I confess to never having warmed to the Manfred symphony and don’t join the chorus acclaiming it as a masterpiece, but I am always prepared to give another go, as I know others esteem it. Tchaikovsky first deemed it his best work, then wanted to destroy it, so goodness knows where that leaves me and my reaction. I have always found it melodically uninspired, fragmented by its very programmatic nature and essentially overlong, hence I can understand why some conductors like Toscanini played the cut version – but that is now very much out of favour and of course Pletnev plays the full, hour-long score. Tempi are also a potential pitfall; the work is episodic and protracted enough without making them being exaggeratedly slow but Pletnev does not fall into that trap and reacquaintance and more detailed listening for the purposes of this review have certainly brought me to a greater appreciation of Manfred

One thing is certain: the instrumental colours and textures are superb here; the combination of the bass clarinet set against the choir of winds at the start is especially haunting and every bar is dramatically doom-laden – super-heated, one might say. The marking is “Lento lugubre” – the same as the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet and Rachmaninov’s “Mournful Iron Bells”; the affinity among those three works is clear. Nonetheless, I maintain that first movement does take too long to say what it has to say and the pulsing – lost love? -melody at 11:43 brings a welcome relief. The timpani-led coda is very powerful, contrasting strikingly with the shimmering, dancing Scherzo, highly suggestive of the waterfall before the pastoral D major Trio, played lightly and liltingly con amore and the harp suggests a Mendelssohnian  – or maybe Berliozian (sorry – a terribly clumsy adjective) “faery” or Queen Mab fantasy. The Andante maintains the gentler mood of Alpine, rustic calm until a stormier section briefly depicts the turbulence of Manfred’s soul. It seems to me that Pletnev is alive to all the subtleties and nuances of this varied score, responding with natural grace and adaptability to its twists and turns without allowing it to become incoherent, even if, again, Tchaikovsky’s material does not justify the duration of the movement, which outstays its welcome. The finale is a much splashier affair; Tchaikovsky throws the kitchen sink at it, employing a huge battery of instruments and Pletnev ramps up his grunts to compete with the percussion; it’s undeniably exciting but essentially quite crude. I am really not sure what purpose the incongruous fugue serves in such a scenario, but there it is. The author of the notes remarks upon the similarity of the “organ apotheosis” to Liszt’s Faust Symphony which, as far as I, as a non-fan, am concerned, says it all – and the twenty minutes for me begins to resemble one of Rossini’s Wagnerian “mauvais quarts d’heure”.

The half a dozen bonuses are generous and no mere makeweights, as they include substantial and even great works . The Marche Slave is first lent a grave, stoical grandeur instead of being played like some old pot-boiler, but then Pletnev’s brisk tempo  prevents it being a wallow and it feels as if he is narrating a gripping tale. He builds to a splendidly uninhibited climax. The Coronation March is a noisy bit of occasional bombast and no more, but entertaining on its own terms. The Romeo and Juliet overture is magnificent: first dark, brooding and expertly paced – as so often with Pletnev quite fast but never hurried or harried because his phrasing is so legato.  The combat music is absolutely electric, the dexterity of the scurrying strings phenomenal and the swooning, surging Romanticism of the love scene all-consuming; I am captivated by this reading – quite the best I know. The Francesca da Rimini almost matches it for quality; my problem is that the Stokowski recording with the “Stadium Symphony Orchestra” (i.e. New York Philharmonic) has spoiled me for any other version, but I was able to sincerely praise Alpesh Chauhan’s new recording recently (review) and this is as good, full of menace and passion. Thunderous timpani, swirling strings, a shrieking piccolo, all suggest the torments of hell. I quirkily consider it to be Tchaikovsky’s greatest work after his last symphony and it is here done justice. The Capriccio Italien is at the other end of the emotional spectrum – though as I remarked in my review of Chauhan’s second Tchaikovsky bon-bons, it always sound more Iberian than Italian to me. Pletnev conjures a glorious, almost Straussian opulence from the orchestra and moves seamlessly from the lazy, moody insolence of the first five minutes into the insouciant, village-band waltz of the second section into the catchy tarantella and ends explosively, suffused with joie de vivre – or perhaps that should be la goia di vivere – quite an antidote to the gloom of the preceding work.

Like my colleague, I maintain that this set stands comparison with any other, even if I still have my favourite recordings of individual symphonies, but as a collection it is a real bargain whose economy requires no artistic compromise.

 Ralph Moore

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Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 ‘Winter Daydreams’
Marche Slave, Op. 31
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 ‘Little Russian’
Original 1872 version of the first movement
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 ‘Polish’
Festival Coronation March
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Romeo & Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58