Symphony No 1 & The Isle of the
Russian National Orchestra,
DG 463 075-2, Full
Pletnev's Rachmaninov tends to be revelatory, and this coupling is no exception.
The First Symphony has a drive and a passion that many conductors miss (or
rather, prefer to miss) in this failed work, but this brings with it some
unexpected problems. One of these is the darkness Pletnev draws from his
Russian strings. I don't think I have ever heard a more tragic, more leaden
sounding performance of this work than the one on this disc. There are, of
course, enormous benefits to be had by dividing his violins left and right,
but the focus of sound on this recording (which is very bass heavy) comes
from the centre of the orchestra - and this means darker cellos and violas.
I don't think this is as authentically Russian a performance as some might
wish, or claim, it to be. The opening to the final movement has a breadth
one doesn't get with Previn or Jansons and the climaxes are suddenly whipped
up only to dissipate and vanish. There is genuine excitement at the close
of the first movement, and the middle movements are, in contrast, much lighter
than those of rival conductors. The playing is a virtue in itself with woodwind
particularly evocative. I haven't heard a Russian orchestra sound so compelling
in Rachmaninov since Sanderling's legendary recording of the Second Symphony.
Whereas the First Symphony is a problematic work The Isle of the Dead is
a near-masterpiece. Pletnev again brings to his performance a deep, saturated
string sound - and this is much more persuasive in a work that demands string
playing of the very highest order. The cellos and basses are thunderous,
the violins taut and passionate. The central climax, and the build up to
it, is simply thrilling - even though Pletnev is not quite as compelling
as Koussevitsky in his unrivalled recording of this work.
I have found Pletnev's playing of the Rachmaninov piano concertos to be at
times heavy-handed. It is a trait his recordings of the symphonies often
seem to emulate. These are undoubtedly fascinating performances (superbly
played), but I would not want to return to them often.