October 22, 2015


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $39.99 (3 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Manfred Symphony; Original version of Symphony No. 2’s first movement; Capriccio Italien; Coronation March; Francesca da Rimini; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture; Marche Slave. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $69.99 (7 SACDs).

     It is easy, but facile, to assume that the standard repertoire invites standardization of performances – that, all in all, good readings by fine conductors leading first-rate orchestras tend to sound more or less the same nowadays, especially with the generalized homogenization of orchestral sound in recent decades and with the same conductor frequently serving as music director of multiple orchestras at the same time. There is in fact some truth to this rather cynical viewpoint: the days in which George Szell gave the Cleveland Orchestra an unmistakable sound and Herbert von Karajan brought a unique perspective and sonic blend to the Berlin Philharmonic are certainly over. But like most generalizations, this one takes things a bit too far. There remain orchestras that are simply better than the vast majority around the world, and there are still conductors whose view of well-known music is unusual enough and is delivered with enough intensity so that it stands out despite there being numerous more-than-adequate performances available from a wide variety of sources. The BR Klassik release of live recordings of the Brahms symphonies featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons.is a case in point. This is one of the world’s great orchestras, and it plays Brahms with so much warmth, solidity, and excellence of sectional balance that a listener can simply sit back, whether in concert or at home, and revel in the gorgeous ebb and flow of sound. But there is more: Jansons has his own distinct interpretative way with these symphonies, one that will not necessarily be to all tastes but that certainly shines new light on the works’ structure and evocative emotionalism. These recordings were made over a period of several years: Symphony No. 1 dates to 2007, No. 2 to 2006, No. 3 to 2010, and No. 4 to 2012. But Jansons’ firm grasp of the music and his determination to guide it down the paths where he wishes it to go are equally clear throughout. This is most apparent in Symphony No. 1, which is handled very broadly indeed, not to the point of over-expansion but right on the verge of it. The first movement swells and then swells again, growing in expansiveness to a degree that could easily overshadow the rest of the symphony if Jansons did not reserve analogously broad and elegant treatment for the finale. No. 2 then gets equal weightiness, so that instead of coming across as a contrasting and altogether lighter work than No. 1, it emerges as an elegantly paired symphony springing in large part from the same compositional impulses that produced its predecessor. These are unusual and highly involving approaches, although that of No. 2 is marred by the omission of the exposition repeat in the first movement – which makes it possible to present Nos. 2 and 3 on a single disc but which mars the overall scale of both the symphony and Jansons’ reading.

     The paired sound of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 is complemented by a similar sense of duality in Nos. 3 and 4. Brahms tended to think in pairs, although not necessarily consciously – his two very different orchestral serenades, which were in some ways precursors of the symphonies, provide another example. In Jansons’ Brahms cycle, No. 3 retains its inevitable unity of sound and structure – it is the most tightly knit of the four symphonies – but Jansons somewhat dials back the emotion here, preventing the work from having an overdone swooning effect, as it sometimes does in other readings. He nevertheless makes clear its rhythmic drive and the way in which the movements seem so closely related to one another that the symphony comes across as practically a single extended movement. Interestingly, Jansons then applies a somewhat similar approach to No. 4, even to the point of pulling forth more intensity (even, arguably, a bit too much) from the second movement than it normally offers. Jansons gives Brahms’ final symphony a greater sense of unity than it usually has, to the point that the concluding passacaglia crowns the work without seeming out of place or overdone merely because of its unusual-for-its-time-period style. Not all elements of these performances will immediately enthrall listeners, but those that do not captivate emotionally at the outset will likely do so on a second hearing – and all four performances show, from start to finish, a thoughtful and thoroughly engaged conductor leading a top-of-the-line orchestra in music that, for all its familiarity, still retains its freshness when handled as well as it is here.

     The personal element is even more pronounced in the boxed-set version of Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky symphonies, which were originally released on individual SACDs from 2011 through 2014. Like Jansons, Pletnev has an outstanding orchestra: the Russian National Orchestra, which Pletnev founded in 1990, vaulted rapidly to the top ranks of ensembles in Russia, which puts it very high in the European and worldwide orchestral pantheon. Indeed, the orchestra’s first recording, of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, was one of the work’s best recorded performances ever, so beautifully articulated, perfectly played and nuanced in interpretation that a full Tchaikovsky cycle at the same level would have been one for the ages. Unfortunately, that is not this one: this cycle is far too uneven and quirky to deserve wholehearted endorsement. It gets a (+++) rating despite, or rather in large part because of, the excellent orchestral playing, but many of Pletnev’s interpretations are just too unfocused to be fully convincing. Indeed, 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 much-better third and fourth movements do not make up for the odd first two. Symphony No. 2, heard as usual in its 1879-80 version, is also very well played, and there is a wealth of fine detail in the first three movements.  But the fourth movement is peculiar: it is taken unusually quickly, albeit 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 this first-class orchestra barely keeps up. The recording also offers the original (1872) version of the first movement, a rather paltry supplement (the entire CD runs only 48 minutes) but an intriguing one that shows how Tchaikovsky rethought the opening of his most folk-music-influenced symphony.

     The first two symphonies’ lacks do not extend to the Third, which is a winner. The tempos are well chosen, the balletic elements so important to this symphony are well communicated and thoroughly understood, the lighter moments are nicely contrasted with the more-serious ones, and the overall effect is of a substantial work with considerable drive, brightness and elegance.  The only disappointment is the third of the fifth movements, the central Andante, which Pletnev takes too slowly and deliberately, so that it somewhat overweighs the symphony as a whole in its direction. The interpretation is justifiable, but in light of the mostly jaunty tempos elsewhere, the movement seems a bit overthought and overdone. In all, though, this is a well-done interpretation and as well-played as are all the works in Pletnev’s cycle. The Fourth fares very well, too. From the opening proclamation of the “fate” motif on burnished brass, through a first movement handled with tone-poem flair so its length does not seem ungainly and its episodic nature makes perfect sense, Pletnev shows his clear understanding of and empathy for Tchaikovsky’s music – at least here.  A second movement that nicely balances the first, rocking gently and not wallowing in the emotionalism of the lengthy opening, is followed by a quicksilver pizzicato Scherzo that flits and dances here and there and enfolds a rollicking trio in which the woodwind playing is outstanding.  Then the finale bursts like thunder on the scene, with Pletnev’s pacing and the excellent playing of the orchestra combining to produce a thrilling and highly dramatic conclusion.  If the First and Second are mannered and fussy in Pletnev’s readings, the Third and Fourth are well-thought-out and well-managed.

     The problem is that when Pletnev fails, he does so on a large scale – and his Tchaikovsky Fifth is, not to mince words, a failure.  It is an odd failure, a throwback to the days when the conductor mattered more than the composer, when Tchaikovsky’s deep emotionalism (over-emotionalism to some) invited swooning on the podium and a level of rubato that, far from bringing out the inner workings and feelings of the music, inevitably imposed the conductor’s feelings on it, and on the audience.  This is simply unforgivable today, even when the conductor is Pletnev.  His Tchaikovsky Fifth is well-nigh incoherent, the tempos varying so much in the first and final movements that listeners will be whipsawed rather than pulled along through this most carefully structured of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works.  The finale is little short of a disaster, slowing down so much that the rhythm flags, then speeding up to such a point that the beauties and the musical lines themselves are simply lost.  And the coda, which always hangs uneasily onto this otherwise profound symphony, is a mess, so perfunctory that it seems as if Pletnev had simply had enough of the symphony and wanted to get it over with.  The orchestra’s superb playing is not nearly enough to compensate for all the conductor’s quirks, which result in an inelegant and ill-considered interpretation.  But just when it is tempting to give up on Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky sequence, something comes along to redeem it, such as the Sixth. Although the reading included here lacks the elegance and some of the interpretative nuances of Pletnev’s 1991 recording of the work for Virgin Classics, this version (which dates to 2010) is amazingly well-played, exceptionally well-recorded (much better than the older one), and filled with highly sensitive touches. The opening bassoon, for example, sounds particularly gloomy here, while the gorgeous main theme of the first movement has a yearning wistfulness that is deeply felt without being mawkish or overdone.  Pletnev has broadened his view of the symphony in the decades since the 1991 recording: the first and last movements on PentaTone are both longer than on Virgin Classics, where they were already expansive.  But nothing in them feels stretched; nor do the middle movements sound rushed.  The second movement flows with considerable beauty and elegance, while the scurrying, speedy opening of the third effectively introduces a movement whose increasingly frenetic tone makes the depressive start of the finale all the more pathétique. The last movement starts almost languidly, moving more deeply into despair as it progresses and eventually fading into nothingness with a very moving sigh of resignation.  This performance reaffirms the symphony’s firm place in the classical-music canon and Pletnev’s expertise with the work.

     As for the Manfred Symphony, written between Nos. 4 and 5, Pletnev’s performance is one of the best in this set, allowing the often-gorgeous themes to flow freely while not engaging in the sort of overdone rubato that mars Nos. 1, 2 and 5. The beautiful second theme of the first movement and the whole of the third come across particularly appealingly here, and Pletnev does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the somewhat over-the-top finale, which even calls for an organ (speaking of “all the stops”!). The performance is involving and flows very well, and the SACD sound is first-rate. The bonus elements in this seven-disc package are the same ones included when the SACDs were individually released, and they are scarcely generous. The performances are at least serviceable, at best exhilarating, and it is pleasant to have some shorter and mostly lighter Tchaikovsky to complement the symphonies’ length and seriousness. It is for the symphonies, though, that listeners will want this set – if they do want it. It is such an odd mixture of excellence and ineptitude that Tchaikovsky aficionados will definitely want to think twice, or maybe three or four times, before committing to a purchase.

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