Mikhail Pletnev may have taken the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s
First Symphony – Winter Daydreams – a little too seriously.
His recording of the work is all about reveries and casual asides,
with very little in the way of convincing symphonic argument.
It is a tricky balance to get right, but Tchaikovsky offers
plenty of substance and drama in this score to balance the more
atmospheric passages. Time and again, Pletnev emphasises the
latter, even through what would otherwise be stirring melodies
and key thematic arguments.
As ever, the Russian National Orchestra are on top form, as
are the engineers from Pentatone, so Pletnev's daydreams
are painted in clear, translucent colours with as much detail
as you could hope for. The quiet opening, for example, a flute
solo over tremolo strings, draws the listener straight into
the music. The richness and warmth of the string and woodwind
sound is a real strength of this orchestra, making its tone
ideal for Tchaikovsky.
Even from the very start the tempos are on the slow side, and
while Pletnev does raise the temperature a bit for the main
theme, it's not enough. More serious though, is the lack
of accentuation in the tuttis. Without that agogic framework,
the music just flows from one theme to another. It's
all very pleasant, especially with orchestral playing of this
calibre, but it rarely seems symphonic.
The middle movements are similar. Unlike the first movement,
the pacing here is more conventional, but Pletnev plays both
for their atmospheric qualities. Surprisingly, there is enough
atmosphere in the scherzo for it to function on this level,
but it is not enough to make up for the distinct lack of drama
Fortunately things improve in the Finale. After a few minutes
of 'Andante lugubre' introduction, as flowing
and atmospheric as anything we have yet heard, Pletnev picks
up the pace in the long accelerando that leads into the main
theme. Then, suddenly, we are into a proper Tchaikovsky finale,
with lots of percussion and brass punching out the rhythms.
The balance in the mix gives just the right prominence to the
bass drum and double basses here, so that when they kick in
you really know about it. The timpani sounds curiously distant,
although I'm listening in SACD stereo and it might sound
better placed in the surround mix. Sadly, the energy dissipates
again before the end is reached. The coda lacks the drive that
the movement needs to finish decisively. This is partly the
composer's fault, as a lot of the music in these last
few pages is conventional to a fault. It need not drag though,
at least not like this.
March Slave is the filler, or rather the coupling,
at 55 minutes you couldn't exactly call this disc full.
This piece also runs the risk of sounding underpowered, especially
as it shares its theme with the much more richly scored 1812
Overture. Pletnev is however able to make it work. This
too is a reserved reading, but not fatally so, and the variety
and ingenuity in Tchaikovsky's orchestration give the
RNO plenty of chances to shine.
Technically, this disc is beyond reproach, both in terms of
the orchestral playing and the sound quality. The interpretation
isn't to my taste, though others may disagree. It is
certainly the case that Tchaikovsky's early symphonies
don't play themselves. Difficult interpretive decisions
must be made to reconcile their often contradictory demands.
Previous recordings in this series have found Pletnev in complete
artistic symbiosis with Tchaikovsky's scores. This time
round he makes some radical decisions about tempos and accents,
namely to play down both. The results don't really justify