Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor (1888) [44:48]
Francesca da Rimini (1876) [24:30]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, June 2010
PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 385 [71:41]

In the spring of 1885 Tchaikovsky was exhausted, in despair and full of self-doubt. Then suddenly he was inspired to write his Fifth Symphony which he completed in less than eight weeks: four to sketch it out and three to orchestrate it.

I will confess that I had not visited this Symphony for many years. I know I was ‘knocked out’ by it when I heard it for the first time in my late teens. What excitement, what lyricism, and what wonderful tunes. Who cares that some snobs declared its second movement as vulgar just because one of its themes was borrowed for films and radio programmes. One of my fondest memories is of the 1950s Karajan recording that featured Dennis Brain as the horn soloist in that second movement. I stupidly let that LP out of my collection when CDs superseded LPs. I believe it resurfaced recently in the huge collection of Karajan recordings. If it was offered as a single CD I would jump at it - a hint for somebody?

To the present recording and straight to the point - that solo horn in the second movement. Alas it just does not compare with Dennis Brain’s heartfelt rendering; and the timbre of Pletnev’s soloist’s instrument, as so many Russian horns do, tends towards, if I may dare say it, a certain sourness. Pletnev’s second movement favours a dour countenance until it is lifted by that splendid noble march tune. The older ones amongst us will remember that this tune introduced the American documentary series The March of Time seen in cinemas between 1935 and 1951.

Despite my disparagement of the horn-playing it must be said that the virtuosity of the Russian National Orchestra is undoubted. This performance generally is very impressive. The strings glow, the violins have a gorgeous sheen and the woodwind are very expressive; the jubilant brass section sings out triumphantly in the finale in which Pletnev generates white heat excitement. The opening Andante thrills too, its drama well paced. The lovely waltz third movement is very successful: it lilts delightfully while the enchanting woodwinds and strings chatter and pirouette.

Turning to Francesca da Rimini, Pletnev draws a most sinister opening. This vividly suggests the descent into nether regions where Francesca and her brother-in-law, Paolo suffer unending and hellish tortures for their illicit love. Tchaikovsky’s magnificent tone poem offers not so much a detailed narrative rather a character study. Tchaikovsky’s diabolic vision of hellfire is thrillingly realised by Pletnev. In the central section, that ravishing romantic melody is spun out bewitchingly, the coy woodwinds singing out, tentatively as if Francesca is trying to resist her longing. The strings suggest Paolo’s insistent ardour before voluptuous harp and flute figures make temptation irresistible and their ignominious fate is sealed.

The Pentatone sound is first class.

A sizzling Francesca with a Symphony that’s also very good but which is spoilt by the delivery of that vital horn solo in the second movement.

Ian Lace

see also review by Brian Reinhart

A sizzling Francesca with a Symphony that’s also very good but which is spoilt by the delivery of that vital horn solo in the second movement.