Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. April 2011, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia
PENTATONE PTC 5186382 [48:12]

With this release, Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra have almost completed their second survey of Tchaikovsky six numbered symphonies, with only Symphony No. 3 yet to be released.
Pletnev and his orchestra recorded their first cycle for DG in 2005; that was re-released in October 2010 as a budget-priced box set, and includes the same forces performing the Manfred Symphony. The DG set divided the critics: many felt that the Russian National Orchestra played the works with an unprecedented level of refinement and nobility, while others found the performances clinical and over-calculated. Most everyone agreed that Pletnev and the orchestra had developed a more homogeneous, “international” sound that squarely rejected any distinctly Russian timbres. Deutsche Grammophon’s recording also proved disappointing, offering a two-dimensional, overly-bright sound picture that sounded distinctly artificial on occasion.
I once owned the DG set, but recently gave it away; over the years I found both the performances and recording unsatisfactory. I own several complete cycles, including Muti/Philharmonia, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic, Litton/Bournemouth Symphony, and Markevitch/LSO. Each of these sets offers consistently superior recordings and performances. Yet I have been tracking Pletnev’s new cycle with keen interest, hoping Pletnev’s musical interpretations have matured, and certain that Pentatone’s recordings would be far superior to that of Deutsche Grammophon.
My hopes for a better recording are certainly met and exceeded. Pentatone has perfectly captured the sound of this orchestra, and what a sound it is! The strings have a rich, velvety lushness, a dazzling unanimity of attack, and the technical brilliance to articulate the most difficult passages with breath-taking ease. The woodwinds offered a well-blended ensemble sound, but exhibit distinct personalities in their solo work. The brass sound is also warm and full-throated, but proved a touch disappointing because I was hoping that Pletnev might allow them the kind of overpowering brilliance that was evident on their first releases of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony (Virgin Classics, 1992) and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (DG, 1994). Frustratingly, the brass is tightly reined in throughout this recording, which renders several climaxes a disappointingly limp sound.
I remember the DG performance of Symphony No. 2 being one of the more successful performances in that set. Sadly, the new recording fails to improve on the earlier performance, and, in many ways, is less convincing that their earlier effort.
It bears repeating that the orchestra displays a complete technical mastery of the notes. The most difficult string passages are tossed off with disarming ease. Is this music every supposed to sound easy? Tchaikovsky was an overtly passionate man, who lived his life with his heart on his sleeve. All of his music - whether it has a programme or not - displays powerful emotions and passions that, in the best performances, speak so openly that it almost makes for uncomfortable listening. Communicating those emotions and passions is an absolutely essential ingredient of any successful Tchaikovsky performance. Here, that ingredient is almost completely absent. Even the initial downbeat proved worrisome. In the performances led by Muti and Markevitch, the chord’s weight and intensity says “Sit up! Pay attention! I am about to share something profound with you.” Here it is simply well balanced. There is obsessive quality about the main theme of the main Allegro section that builds in anxiety and tension until it reaches a shattering climax (6:50 on this recording). But Pletnev never creates that tension and consequently the climax seems merely loud. The three main themes in this movement - a few of them genuine folksongs - positively cry out for rubato, but Pletnev allows very little, and the phrasing sounds four-square and uninspired. The best moments are the final bars of the movement, where the horn player imbues his solo with a lonely, forlorn quality that is immediately matched by the lower strings and bassoon - suddenly the players seem to be really listening and reacting to one another. Why does this only happen in the last 14 bars?
Things improve in the second movement, which features some delightfully pointed woodwind playing. There are several passages where the theme is passed between different groups of instruments, and this give and take seems to snap the orchestra out of its auto-pilot mode. Frustratingly, at the climax before Rehearsal G, Pletnev again reins in the orchestral climax and the accumulated energy and tension immediately dissipate.
The auto-pilot playing returns in the Scherzo. Muti and the Philharmonia honour the many quick changing dynamic markings, building a performance of robust playfulness, the orchestra clearly enjoying the music and one another. The same cannot be said about their Russian colleagues in this stubbornly earthbound reading.
Pletnev and his players dispatch the final movement in record time: 9.19 versus Muti’s 10:25, and Muti is not exactly slow. The opening theme, played by the entire orchestra (marked Fortissimo), should sound like a mini-Great Gate of Kiev. Here Pletnev perversely encourages a lighter texture (and gentler dynamic), completely negating the music’s nobility and weight. The Allegro is played faster than usual, and Pletnev does little to shape the music, or draw out its inherently dramatic nature. The large climax just before the Coda is again underwhelming, because Pletnev and his players never create a feeling of ever increasing urgency in the lead up to it. Pletnev sets a challengingly fast pace for the Coda, and the orchestral playing is impressively precise until Pletnev introduces an unmarked acceleration into the closing bars, causing even this fabulous orchestra to struggle. In the final four measures the timpani player is typically given room to slow into the last measure, but Pletnev just presses the music right into the final chord. While there is nothing in the score that indicates a ritardando, Pletnev’s headlong rush was completely unconvincing.
The CD also includes the original first movement. Tchaikovsky premiered this symphony on 26 January 1873 to considerable acclaim, yet seven years later he completely revised the work, basically rewriting the first movement with new thematic material. I am perfectly happy to hear a composer’s first compositional thoughts, as I enjoy a glimpse into their compositional process. After listening to it a few times, I hear nothing that makes me question Tchaikovsky’s judgment - his second thoughts are indeed superior. Yet even with this fascinating extra, the playing time of the CD adds up to a little over 48 minutes, which means 30 minutes of wasted space on a full price SACD.
To sum up: a fabulous recording of an orchestra that should and often does under other conductors sound terrific, yet here they rarely rise above the routine. Pletnev must take the blame for this, and I found his interpretative ideas about this work maddening. The performance is non-competitive, and, to add insult to injury, we have the insultingly short playing time. This is all together a most frustrating and disappointing release.

David A. McConnell

A most frustrating and disappointing release.