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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, Capriccio Italian / Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra

Tchaikovsky / Russian National Orch / Pletnev
Release Date: 08/30/2011 
Label:  Pentatone   Catalog #: 5186386   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.” Capriccio Italien Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Natl O PENTATONE 5186386 (SACD: 62:13)

This is bound to be a controversial “Pathétique.” There will be those critics Read more who hate it while others will adore it. I’m lining up behind those whose excitement is almost orgasmic. While I’m willing to concede that Mikhail Pletnev can occasionally test the limits of propriety, his reading of the score—with all of its gestural romantic hyperbole involving unwritten ritards, pauses, tempo fluctuations, and dynamic exaggerations—is of a gripping, heart-pounding, palm-sweating, dramatic urgency as I’ve never before experienced in this work.

In addition to Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra, there’s a third major and equal contributor to the shock and awe of this performance, and that is PentaTone’s SACD recording. This is not a remastering from Pletnev’s Deutsche Grammophon Tchaikovsky cycle with this same orchestra recorded back in the 1990s; it’s a brand-new multichannel studio version made in Moscow in June 2010, and if ever the term “blockbuster” applied to a recording, this would be it. The thud that announces the arrival of the development section in the first movement has the kind of impact that could register on the seismographs at the National Earthquake Information Center.

In the first movement, Pletnev does not achieve tension through speed but by stealth. Rather than gather intensity through pressing ever forward, as Mravinsky does in his classic 1960 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, Pletnev allows the music to ebb and flow, but in increasingly longer and larger arcs. The difference between them is a minute-and-a-half. But Pletnev yields nothing to Mravinsky’s tempos in the symphony’s two inner movements, being slightly faster in both. Another minute-and-a-half separates the two conductors, however, in the score’s Adagio lamentoso finale, with Mravinsky showing little inclination to indulge the movement’s second theme. For Pletnev, the theme, indeed the movement as a whole, is a primal cry for the loss of innocence, the loss of hope, the loss of everything.

The overall difference in timings isn’t that great; Pletnev takes just a little over three minutes longer with the score than Mravinsky. But it’s not tempos, per se, that make the two performances so different, and this is where objections to Pletnev, if raised, are most likely to be directed. Much of his drama is generated through italicizing—that is, stretching or underlining a phrase, pausing before a crucial entrance, or making a point by leaning into the first note of a falling minor second and then making a swooning diminuendo on the second note to register a deep despairing sigh—all in the interest of telling us to pay attention, to sit up and listen, because this is really important. There are many examples, but to cite just one, listen at 11:57 to the way Pletnev has the violins articulate the four-note motive on which the whole first movement is based. He has them slightly elongate the third note and then slump, quivering, to the note a half-step below—the minor second sob.

Some might complain that a few of the things Pletnev does sound kind of campy. But then—no disrespect to a great composer intended—so much of Tchaikovsky’s life was drama dressed in high camp that it’s hard sometimes to know how seriously the music should be taken. Despite the tragic cast of the “Pathétique” and the morbid fascination that has always surrounded it, there’s really not a shred of evidence to support the idea that it was Tchaikovsky’s suicide note or that he was any more depressed than usual when he wrote it. I know it’s fun and it adds to the romantic mystique of the thing to think that, but as noted in a prior review, in a letter to his publisher upon completing the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote, “I can honestly say that never in my life have I been so pleased with myself, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have done something so good.” And to his brother Anatoly he wrote, “I think this symphony is the best of my compositions.” That hardly sounds like a man on the brink of taking his own life.

Perhaps a more realistic explanation of the “Pathétique” lies in the deep Russian roots of its composer and in the dark, brooding, passionate, emotionally volatile, and not infrequently melodramatic character that seems to be a common denominator in so much Russian music. Pletnev’s “Pathétique” resonates with Russianness through and through and if, on occasion, it exaggerates that character to the point of near-caricature, it’s a portrait painted with exceptionally vibrant colors and vivid detail.

As I said at the beginning, there are those who will love this performance and those who will hate it. I count myself among the former. But even if you are among the latter, you owe it to yourself to hear this release for what is surely a stunning recording accomplishment.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathétique" by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893; Russia 
Capriccio italien, Op. 45 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Russia 

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