February 16, 2012

(+++) THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1; Marche Slave. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Borodin: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Notturno from String Quartet No. 2; In the Steppes of Central Asia; Prince Igor: Overture and Polovtsian Dances. Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; St. Petersburg Camerata (Notturno); New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Steppes). Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Mikhail Pletnev’s interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are becoming increasingly capricious as he progresses through his cycle with the Russian National Orchestra. The orchestral playing is superb throughout, but Pletnev’s ideas can be simply bizarre. For example, he changes tempo repeatedly and confusingly in the four-minute slow introduction to the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 – but wait! There is no slow introduction to the movement. Pletnev invents one, turning the start of this Allegro tranquillo opening movement into something sleepy and dreamlike (perhaps because Tchaikovsky called the movement “Dreams [or Daydreams] on a Winter Journey”). Then Pletnev plays the next section of the movement at such a breakneck pace that a lesser orchestra would have had real difficulty avoiding sloppiness. Later in the movement, we get further speedups and slowdowns placed hither and thither, resulting in a disjointed, mixed-up and altogether peculiar performance. In the lovely second movement, Pletnev again starts slowly, speeds up (but thankfully not so much), and manages to bring out the cantabile in the Adagio cantabile ma non tanto tempo designation only because of the great warmth and beauty of the orchestra’s strings. At the end of the movement, though, Pletnev slows down the proceedings so much that listeners may find themselves nodding off: it is the orchestra that makes this recording worth hearing, not the conductor’s view of the music. The third movement, thankfully, is taken at an appropriately brisk pace, with lovely flow and gorgeous playing in the central section; the reduced tinkering vastly improves the overall performance. Pletnev actually takes the finale’s opening as an Andante lugubre, as Tchaikovsky wanted it to be, but he soon speeds up, apparently so he can slow down again toward the end of the introductory passage. Thankfully, there is no ritard just before the main Allegro moderato section (some conductors continue to favor one, but it is not justifiable), and the majority of this movement is well-paced as well as well-played. The coda is a touch on the slow side, but that is much better than playing it as quickly as some conductors do: Pletnev does not shrink from the bombast that results, and the conclusion is quite effective as a consequence. In sum, the first half of the symphony is nearly a disaster, while the second half is quite good and sometimes quite wonderful – a very curious performance indeed. The disc also includes a warm and gorgeously played Marche Slave, almost wholly lacking in the oddities that mar the symphony and concluding with a hugely upbeat flourish.

     Sir Andrew Davis’ interpretations of Borodin’s symphonies are much more straightforward and much more listenable. The British conductor may not have Pletnev’s intense connection to Russia, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra may lack the polish and panache of the Russian National Orchestra, but Davis has clearly studied these scores: he appreciates them and pays close attention to the composer’s intentions in tempos, dynamics and contrasts among orchestral sections. These analog performances (apparently from the 1970s, although their exact dates are unknown) may not benefit from the full and rich sound accorded Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky, but Davis’ Borodin is more musicianly and more appealing in its straightforward approach to the symphonies. Davis does not seem like a conductor with anything to prove – he defers to Borodin, ferreting out the composer’s ideas and working diligently to bring them clearly to listeners. Indeed, the clarity of the Canadian orchestra is a big plus here: the strings are not sumptuous and the brass not outstandingly warm, but the players’ skill and their excellent ensemble are evident throughout. The result is a First that strides nobly forward and is never less than compelling; a Second that is tightly knit, dramatic and cogent; and a foreshortened Third with pleasant chamber-music qualities that will make any listener familiar with the work regret, probably not for the first time, that only two movements of this symphony survive. The second CD here is a rather odd compilation. Davis does as fine a job with the Prince Igor excerpts as with the symphonies, and there is special pleasure in his inclusion of a chorus in the Polovtsian Dances, as Borodin intended – it is common in concert versions to omit the voices, but they add considerably to the beauty and texture of the music even when, as in this recording, the words are not provided. This CD, though, is a pastiche, not of composers but of performers, including the St. Petersburg Camerata’s rendition of a chamber-orchestra version of the famous Notturno from the Second String Quartet and a Leonard Bernstein (!) performance of In the Steppes of Central Asia. These are both very well done, and certainly effective in filling out an all-Borodin release; presumably Newton Classics, which re-releases older recordings, had these versions available and thought there would be no harm in including them. And there isn’t, really; just a slight sense of peculiarity. But it is as nothing compared with the peculiarities of, for example, Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky First.

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