July 05, 2012


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2; Original version of the work’s first movement. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Suite No. 4, “Mozartiana.” Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $14.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Capriccio Italien. Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $14.99.

      Conductors today seem increasingly determined not to play Tchaikovsky’s music but to play around with it.  It is easy to see why this is so tempting: the music is so well known and so often heard that conductors who have led it many times, and orchestras that have performed it many times, may understandably certainly hunger for something new.  Unfortunately, though, this music has quite enough in it already when played as the scores recommend.  Changing it through unusual tempo choices, instrumental emphases and other approaches gets listeners no closer to the heart of the music and brings no more enjoyment than letting the works speak for themselves.  Indeed, the enjoyment level tends to become less through all the tinkering, even when the tinkerer is as adept as Mikhail Pletnev and the orchestra as fine as the Russian National.  Pletnev and his orchestra offered Tchaikovsky for their very first recording, providing a sublime and exceptionally well-played Symphony No. 6.  But Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky cycle for PentaTone was far more uneven in its first three volumes, which included Nos. 1, 5 and 6.  And the fourth recording, of No. 2 (the “Little Russian”), has oddities as well, not the least of which is the inclusion of the original (1872) first movement of the symphony – but not the entire original version of the work, even though the SACD runs barely 48 minutes.  The full symphony, heard as usual in its 1879-80 version, is well played and includes a wealth of fine detail in the first three movements.  But the fourth movement is peculiar: it is taken unusually quickly, but convincingly at first – until the gong that heralds the final section, which here leads to complete stoppage of the forward impetus, then a very slow accelerando, and then eventually a conclusion so fast that even the Russian National Orchestra barely keeps up.  This may be an attempt to inject additional drama into the score, but if so, it is a misguided one: this is essentially a bright-hued symphony despite its home key of C minor, and it is not a highly dramatic one.  As for the 1872 first movement, it is fascinating to hear and makes the missed opportunity to have a recording of the complete 1872 version all the more frustrating.  The original movement is 50% longer than the revised one, broader in scope and often cheerier, virtually identical for the first three minutes and then diverging quite a bit from the revision – although it periodically dips back into familiarity as listeners hear sections that Tchaikovsky retained and even expanded when he rewrote the symphony.  The recording as a whole is a worthy one, but scarcely free of unnecessary oddities.

      Much the same can be said of the two Tchaikovsky symphonies performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden, released on the orchestra’s own label.  The performances are all right, certainly, but they are nothing special, and at times sound as if van Zweden has over-thought the music.  No. 4 starts with good brass despite a recording level that seems to have been set too low.  The first movement builds well for about eight minutes, then starts to lose forward momentum and ends up sounding episodic and a bit draggy.  The second movement speeds up and slows down repeatedly, unnecessarily and unconvincingly.  The third is nicely played and best in the soft sections.  The finale is fast and impressively played, despite the fact that here the brass sounds somewhat too restrained initially – although the end of the movement is certainly a crowd-pleaser (these are live recordings).  The symphony is coupled with a pleasantly straightforward version of the Suite No. 4, “Mozartiana,” even though the third movement here is a bit too swooningly Romantic.  The final and longest movement, however, has nice flow and well-done contrasts among its variations, with impressive solo violin playing by Andrés Cárdenes, who was Acting Concertmaster for this performance.

      Van Zweden’s version of Symphony No. 5 never really gels. After a quiet start and slow buildup to the main theme of the first movement, the Allegro con anima moves along adequately until bogging down at the second theme; and the strings sound surprisingly thin.  The horns are particularly good in the second movement, and the third movement flows naturally, but the finale opens in rhythmically foursquare fashion and never really caps or sums up the work as a whole.  The triumphal coda, always a problem for conductors because it attaches so uneasily to everything that has come before, here simply marches along as a continuation of a not-very-revealing interpretation.  Capriccio Italien fares better, with a broad opening, well-played soft sections, and a slow, even hesitant buildup.  By about a third of the way through, the piece is flowing well, and when it speeds up halfway through and the trumpet cuts clearly through the rest of the instruments, this interpretation has become both exciting and involving.  The second half of the piece does not quite sustain this level of interest, but the work as a whole nevertheless comes off well – and better than the symphony, which van Zweden seems determined to reinterpret in ways that are not really clearly communicated in the performance.  On the whole, what is needed in at least some concert halls and recording studios these days is not a reconsideration of the Russian master but a determination to let Tchaikovsky be Tchaikovsky, with the focus more on him and his music and less on conductors’ interest in drawing attention to themselves.

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