March 04, 2010


Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. Ondine. $21.99 (2 CDs).

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Nowadays it takes a certain amount of courage to record the heart of the Romantic repertoire. Yes, this is music that audiences love, and yes, there will always be people interested in buying recordings of the gorgeously sweeping works of the Romantic era – sometimes in a second, third or fourth performance, if ones they already own have started to pall. Nevertheless, recording the Romantic canon is more difficult than programming it in concert, where it can be used to draw audiences in and help support an orchestra – and sometimes, depending on how well a concert program is put together, can encourage attendees to open their minds and ears to less-familiar works. In a recording, though, the question inevitably arises: why? What does yet another version of a Tchaikovsky ballet or two Brahms symphonies have to offer that justifies the time and expense of releasing the umpteenth recorded version? Happily, the answer in the case of Mikhail Pletnev’s Swan Lake is apparent from the gorgeously played, unusually intense opening: outstanding orchestral sound, tremendous warmth, genuine understanding of the score, and a truly wonderful melding of Tchaikovsky’s strictly balletic (and thus often repetitious) elements with his symphonic and operatic ones. The composer took several parts of Swan Lake from earlier, discarded or unsuccessful works, notably the operas The Voyevoda and Undine, and it is in part these sections’ provenance that lends Swan Lake its gloomy cast and strong underlying emotionalism (although, from a strictly musical standpoint, this first of the composer’s ballets is less thoroughly symphonic in structure than his next one, Sleeping Beauty). In any case, Pletnev – whose Russian National Orchestra continues to be a marvel of precise and sensitive playing, especially in the Russian repertoire – makes of the ballet a huge two-and-a-half-hour arc of love, mystery, enchantment, doom and dubious triumph. In some ways, this exemplary performance is better than a staging of the ballet itself, because the stage work’s design creates a rather static first and third act, confining most of the action to the second and fourth. In Pletnev’s recording, there is beauty, sweep and drama throughout. So thoroughly do Pletnev and the orchestra emphasize the forward-moving unity of Swan Lake that it is difficult to choose any particular sections as outstanding. For example, the pas d’action in the second act, in which Prince Siegfried and swan maiden Odette fall in love, is gorgeously played, from the introduction on harp through the violin and cello solos; but the third act’s much lighter Hungarian, Spanish, Neapolitan and Polish dances are, in their own way, equally delightful, and serve to lighten the mood of what is essentially a dark, dark score. Pletnev and his orchestra have thoroughly plumbed the depths of Swan Lake and made this complete recording one that listeners are likely to want to own even if they already possess other fine renditions of the ballet.

     The “why?” of Brahms’ first and second symphonies on LPO is a harder question to answer musically, although there is a pretty good business justification for the release on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label. These are live performances from May and September 2008, and the cost of recording and releasing them – without needing to bring in the orchestra and conductor for additional rehearsals and studio time – is not significant, compared with the possibility of bringing in added revenue from performances that would otherwise disappear into the musical ether. They are fine performances, too, but they are not really outstanding, and there is little in either of them to make a listener think of this two-CD set as a must-have; the release therefore gets a (+++) rating. Vladimir Jurowski has some good ideas – he takes the repeats in both symphonies’ first movements, for example – but there is nothing revelatory in these interpretations. Symphony No. 2 is the better of the two. The first movement is not as expansive and warm as it could be, but the other three are finely honed, clearly delineated and very well played. The finale, its main section taken at a speedier-than-usual tempo, is thoroughly joyous and a delight to hear, although it does feel a trifle rushed at times. As for Symphony No. 1, it comes across as somewhat lacking in grandeur. The first movement, even with the repeat, does not seem impressively large, and the second is rather ordinary. And Jurowski does not seem to know quite what to do with the finale: the broad introductory section does not build particularly effectively, and some wholly uncalled-for rubato at the very end undermines the strength of the material leading up to the coda. These are certainly worthy performances, and the orchestra plays very well indeed – the brass section in the finale of the second symphony is particularly good. But listeners who already have any of the many fine recordings of these Romantic-era staples have little reason to add this two-CD set to their collections.

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