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Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake / Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra

Tchaikovsky / Russian National Orchestra / Pletnev
Release Date: 02/23/2010 
Label:  Ondine   Catalog #: 1167-2  
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Swan Lake Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Natl O ONDINE 1167-2 (2 CDs; 142:52)

Iconoclasts must often pay a price for their idol-breaking. Nearly universal ecstatic greeting to Mikhail Pletnev’s conductorial debut on Virgin, a brilliant but mainstream Tchaikovsky Pathétique , quickly gave way to decidedly mixed responses to subsequent DG releases of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Dvo?ák, and others that seemed to Read more challenge interpretive norms. Such diversity of opinion is, of course, the food of critical review, but some reactions to Pletnev have been extreme. Critic David Hurwitz, in particular, has been so put-off by Pletnev that he not only declares him “a disaster” as a conductor (“a cypher … ultimately he doesn’t really know how [to conduct], and never has”—and that in a relatively positive review), but castigates critics who disagree as “stupidly perverse.” I was reminded of the controversy while reviewing this excellent new recording of Swan Lake , and that of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera excerpts that appears elsewhere in this issue. A reappraisal of these earlier recordings, many of which I haven’t bothered to pull out in years, left me wondering if the critiques had affected my memory. I found my reexamination challenged many remembered impressions, and while most specifics are beyond the scope of this review, the Pletnev Coq d’Or to which I refer in the Rimsky-Korsakov review seems, now that I have reacquired a copy, neither as slick nor as fast as I remembered it. The Tchaikovsky symphony set, dismissed by Hurwitz as “the dullest cycle in history,” proves on reacquaintance to be a completely absorbing exploration of the works. For those curious, booklet annotator Richard Taruskin gives the key: the composer’s devotion to Mozart. Pletnev emphasizes the 18th-century models and the dance rhythms, eschews the hysterical, bombastic, and vulgar, and in so doing strips off some of a century and more of hyper-Romantic interpretive accretions. The symphonies gain both clarity and proportion, and a thought-provokingly different personality, when the structure is given some primacy. File me under stupid and perverse ; I find myself so engaged by this and other such originality that I have ordered copies of some of the even more reviled recordings, like the Beethoven sets, which I have previously avoided.

Familiarity with Pletnev’s approach to the symphonies, or with the more generally praised Sleeping Beauty on DG, will provide some guide to how one will respond to his Swan Lake . As before, Pletnev emphasizes clarity, elegance, and a fair amount of big-picture discipline. This doesn’t preclude drama by any means, and there is certainly plenty of spectacle, but this is generally lean, agile Tchaikovsky, where forward motion is the rule. Pletnev does relax into the more lyrical sections, but never becomes sentimental. Those who demand that the “big tunes” gush need not apply; this is the antithesis of a highly-molded symphonic performance, à la Bonynge on Decca. Instead, there are abrupt contrasts, strong driving rhythms, and steady tempos within sections—very much a dancer’s performance. The way this conductor launches into a new section is often unexpected, very physical—suggesting the sudden motion of the dancers—and very exciting. Finales are propulsive, but so well articulated that they never seem rushed. Waltzes are performed with an appealing lilt, and the act III national dances are flavorful. Only occasionally, as in the act II Dance of the Swans , does one wonder at an unconventional tempo, but even here the relationship to the larger section eventually vindicates the choice. The two discs contain the whole score, minus the supplemental act III Russian Dance and Pas de deux, both included by Previn and Bonynge, which were added for later performances.

The Russian National Orchestra, recently included in a Gramophone magazine list of the top 20 orchestras in the world, certainly validates its ranking in this release. The strings are sweet and articulate; a most expressive section. The brass are solid, compact, and never overbearing, and the winds beautifully precise and blended. One might wish for a bit more color in the woodwinds—the principal clarinet, in particular, is rather plain in tone and temperament—but overall, this is both a virtuoso and an eloquent ensemble with fine soloists. In particular, I must single out the lovely violin solos by concertmaster Alexei Bruni in the act I Pas de deux and the act II dance of Odette and the Prince, the latter with equally expressive principal cellist Alexander Gottgelf.

Obviously, Pletnev’s exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon is now a thing of the past. This Ondine release is the first in what is expected to be a continuing relationship, though according to a company representative there are no specific plans for the next release. Those who admired the results that DG obtained in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory will be pleased to learn that this recording has been produced and engineered by Rainer Maillard, who engineered all of the Yellow Label releases, with all post-production done at Emil Berliner Studios. The results are predictably fine: warm, detailed, with the hall resonance evident at climaxes but never intrusive and with some very potent bass. Given the bracing performance and excellent sound, this not only joins my CD favorites, the lyrical Previn on EMI and the propulsive 1954 monaural Dorati on Mercury, it actually surpasses them. Highly recommended. And who knows what epithet that response might earn.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


Mikhail Pletnev really is a fine ballet conductor, far more successful at characterizing short genre pieces than at sustaining the symphonic drama of large movements in sonata form. Witness how well his cool demeanor, emphasis on precision, and preference for fleet tempos serves the music of Swan Lake, in stark contrast to his dull versions of the same composer's symphonies (save for his first recording of the Sixth for Virgin Classics). Right from the first act's initial Allegro giusto, with its tight and vivacious string ensemble, it's clear that this will be an excellent performance. Pletnev follows with an elegantly lilting Valse and some really energetic characteristic dances in the latter half of Act 3.

Happily, he also allows himself a welcome degree of freedom in the ballet's more lyrical moments. Even if the strings aren't quite as luscious as they might be in the Big Tune (as we find in, say, Boston or Philadelphia), they still play with plenty of power, and Pletnev's treatment of the brass and percussion in the final apotheosis is as intelligent as it gets--extremely powerful, yet with a clarity that banishes any suggestion of empty bombast. The sonics are also very good--vivid and slightly dry--and suit the interpretation quite well. In short, this is a performance that ballet lovers and Tchaikovsky fans alike can appreciate and enjoy without hesitation.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Swan Lake, Op. 20 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875-1876; Russia 

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