Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 2,
Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Nat’l O
PENTATONE 5186382 (SACD: 48:12)
Symphony No. 2:
original first movement, 1872
Having just put to bed a double-header review of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by its new conductor, Jaap van Zweden, I
turn to the penultimate installment in Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky cycle with the Russian National Orchestra. Still to come is the Symphony No. 3. I’ve been following Pletnev’s new PentaTone survey of the Tchaikovsky symphonies—he made an earlier one with this same orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon in the mid 1990s—with increasing interest and pleasure. To be sure, his readings are not without their controversial aspects, mainly involving some hyper-romantic point-making, but this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, one of music’s great melodramatic hysterics, so his scores don’t necessarily discourage a little running down the hall with hair on fire. Better that than some punctilious, po-faced performances I’ve heard.
Between the Second and Third, it’s a tossup as to which is the weakest of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies. The First Symphony, titled “Winter Daydreams,” caused the composer much toil and grief and subjected him to a good deal of criticism from Anton Rubinstein and others among Russia’s academic elite. But in the end, “Winter Daydreams” came to be seen as Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphony before the Fourth. Today, though the Second and Third Symphonies enjoy a few more recordings each than the First, musically and formally they are not the First’s equal, and they stand as interim or bridge works between the First and the Fourth.
Completed in 1872, the C-Minor score (No. 2) was Tchaikovsky’s attempt to produce a Russian nationalist work in the vein of the Mighty Handful. Accordingly, he drew upon three Ukrainian folk tunes—
Down by Mother Volga, Spin O My Spinner
—from which to weave his cloth in the first, second, and fourth movements, hence the nickname, “Little Russian.” The Scherzo is the only movement that does not quote a folk tune directly, but it nonetheless retains a folk-like character.
The symphony was a resounding public success, but this time it was Tchaikovsky rather than the critics who was unhappy with his work. And so, five years later, after it had been published, he recalled the score and undertook major revisions. Besides shortening the finale, he re-orchestrated the Scherzo and carried out an extensive rewrite of the symphony’s first movement. Today, the work is usually given in its revised 1879–80 form, and that’s how it’s heard on tracks 1 through 4 in this new Pletnev recording. As a bonus, however, track 5 contains a performance of the original 1872 first movement. The extent of Tchaikovsky’s rewrite can be gleaned from the comparative timings—16:04 pre-op, 10:56 post-op. That’s a lot of liposuction.
While Pletnev is to be commended for affording the listener the opportunity to hear the first movement in both its revised and original versions, the total disc timing of 48 minutes is still inexcusably short. I would therefore submit that Pletnev and PentaTone could have provided a more generous service by also including the symphony’s Scherzo as originally orchestrated and its pre-cut original finale. That way, the listener could program his or her CD player to hear the entire work in either its original or revised form, leaving the disc still short of full capacity. At the very least, we could have had another of Tchaikovsky’s tone poems or orchestral works as filler, as we’ve had on the previous releases in this cycle.
That complaint aside, Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky is as gripping as ever and PentaTone’s multichannel hybrid SACD is, if anything, even more stunning than its previous releases in this series. There’s amazing breadth and depth to the sonic image, including a solid, tight, deep bass that will sock you in your solar plexus.
The other Tchaikovsky cycle I’ve been following, Daniele Gatti’s with the Royal Philharmonic on Harmonia Mundi, has yet to produce the first three symphonies, and in light of the fact that it has been awhile since the last installment, perhaps there’s no plan to complete that survey. There are, of course, other fine versions to choose from, not least of which is Abbado’s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or if your preference is for SACD, there’s Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on BIS.
But most collectors, if they’re anything like me, bridle at the thought of an incomplete set; it’s akin to working a jigsaw puzzle, only to find a piece missing at the end. So, despite the aforementioned short playing time of the disc and the fact that this is not Tchaikovsky’s most interesting symphony, it’s indispensable if you’ve collected the prior releases, and it does offer the benefits of an excellent performance, fantastic recorded sound, and the ability to hear at least one of the work’s movements as originally written. For these reasons, recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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