June 09, 2011


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Francesca da Rimini. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD)

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini; Serenade for Strings; Marche Slave. USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Apex. $6.99.

     In the last days of the Soviet Union, 1990-91, state-sponsored orchestras continued their tradition of making high-quality music in concert and recordings, even as entrepreneurial musicians began looking for ways to go beyond the old Soviet system and create music in new and less constricted ways. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky was a world-class conductor who flourished under the old system; Mikhail Pletnev was a harbinger of the new. Pletnev founded the Russian National Orchestra, a non-state organization, in 1990; Rozhdestvensky was still conducting such ensembles as the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra in 1991. These two releases of Tchaikovsky’s music are a microcosm of what has changed – and what has not – in two decades of post-Soviet music-making.

     When Pletnev succeeds in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, he succeeds brilliantly: No. 6, his orchestra’s first recording, was amazingly good, and the more recent No. 4 was almost at the same level. But when Pletnev fails, he does so on just as large a 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 superb playing of the Russian National Orchestra, which keeps up unerringly with all the conductor’s quirks, gains this performance a (++) rating, but any listener expecting great things of Pletnev – who has done them before with Tchaikovsky’s symphonies – is going to be deeply disappointed with this inelegant and ill-considered interpretation. What saves the CD and gives it, barely, an overall (+++) rating is the performance of Tchaikovsky’s longest and most interesting symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini. This rendition is everything that Pletnev’s reading of the symphony is not: carefully modulated, generally well-paced (although there is some untoward rubato here as well), highly dramatic in the musical depiction of the eternal winds of this circle of Hell, and equally highly emotive in the aural retelling of the story of doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca. The conclusion of the work – as the horns announce the arrival of Francesca’s husband, which leads to the lovers’ death, and then the sound of the winds creeps slowly in until the vortex bursts forth in all its fury once again – is particularly well done, combining intense drama with a genuine sense of creepiness. What a shame that Pletnev uses his tremendous abilities so well here while misusing them to such an extent in the symphony.

     In contrast to Pletnev’s, the re-release of Rozhdestvensky’s 1991 Francesca is reasonably well played, has reasonably good sound, and comes across as more than a little stodgy. Rozhdestvensky makes the slow opening very slow indeed, and the orchestra’s somewhat muddy textures do not help matters. Rozhdestvensky dwells on the dissonances and forward-looking harmonies of this tone poem to good effect, but he never really produces a sense of drama – the swirling winds have little bite. The central section portraying the love story is very well done, with especially beautiful clarinet playing. But the music as a whole never soars: the performance is more than passable, but not much more. The same is true of the Serenade for Strings, which is one of Tchaikovsky’s sunniest scores but here sounds partly cloudy. Rozhdestvensky emphasizes the slow portions of the work with very slow tempos and great gouts of sound: the introductions to the first and final movements are far more portentous than necessary in this generally light and pleasant work, and the Élégie is made overly weighty as well. This is too bad, because when Rozhdestvensky lets up a bit in the second-movement Walzer and the second theme of the finale, the proportions of the whole work seem better – the conductor was clearly capable of a light touch, but chose not to use much of one in this performance. The Marche Slave, however, is excellent, with a real snap to the main section and a suitably triumphant (although somewhat-too-fast-for-marching) coda. For all the differences between the musical climates of Rozhdestvensky’s and Pletnev’s time, one thing these recordings make clear is the very strong sway that both conductors exert over their respective orchestras: the interpretations of both men are very personal ones.

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