Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Festival Coronation March (1883) [5:37]
Capriccio italien, Op. 45 (1880) [15:35]
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876) [24:20]
Romeo and Juliet (1880 version) [19:17]
Marche slave, Op. 31 (1876) [9:15]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. 2011-13, DZZ Recording Studio, Moscow
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186550 SACD [74:35]

What a good idea this is, to repackage the showpieces from Mikhail Pletnev’s recent Tchaikovsky box, which Simon Thompson made a Recording of the Month (review). I’ve been very impressed by this conductor’s latest work with the Russian National Orchestra; indeed, their coupling of Scriabin’s Symphony No. 1 and the Poème de l’extase was one of my top picks in 2015 (review). As it happens Paavo Järvi’s revelatory account of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony – another RNO/Pentatone release – also featured in my list of the year’s best (review).

Part of the allure of these Pentatone recordings – engineered and produced by Polyhymnia – is that they tend to sound rather good; for instance, that Scriabin has staggering dynamics and formidable depth/detail. Even as a mere ‘CD-quality’ download Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky selection seems pretty decent. The Festival Coronation March, commissioned by Tsar Alexander III, certainly has all the pomp and splendour it needs; however, the recording is a little dry, and that applies to this release as a whole.

The Capriccio italien, which Tchaikovsky wrote on his European tour in 1879-1880, is one of his lighter, more open-hearted creations. It’s a piece that seldom fails to please – those joyful trumpets and sunburst cymbals are especially thrilling – but Pletnev’s performance isn’t as supple or as affectionate as I’d like. I’ve always had a soft spot for Eduardo Mata’s fine Dallas account on RCA-Sony, which has all the southern warmth and spontaneity that’s missing here.

Alas, the same goes for the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini and the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. Although beautifully played, and teeming with fine detail, neither reading offers much in the way of pulse or passion. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine cooler, less engaged readings than these. Then again, I’ve often felt Pletnev is fastidious to a fault, and - as here - that results in polished but somewhat remote performances. His highly regimented Marche slave, a Rubinstein commission, is a case in point. Thankfully Pletnev’s not a cold fish all the time, as that Scriabin release so amply demonstrates.

If you’re looking for a set of Tchaikovsky overtures and fantasias – no marches – I’d recommend an Olympia one from the early 1990s, with Veronika Dudarova and The Russian Symphony Orchestra (OCD512). It’s expressively played, the sound is good and, best of all, there’s a powerful sense of involvement in the music. The programme includes a darkly intense account of Fatum and a terrifically propulsive Overture on the Danish National Anthem. As for her performances of Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini they draw one deep into the palpitating heart of these pieces in a way that Pletnev's don’t begin to do.

Promises much but delivers little; look elsewhere.

Dan Morgan


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