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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op.74 Pathétique (1893) [46:28]
Capriccio Italien Op.45 (1880) [15:53]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. June 2010, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow
PENTATONE PTC 5186 386 [62:13]

Experience Classicsonline

Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky symphony recordings on the Pentatone label have been pretty much panned by the critics, including on these pages. Pletnev’s track record with the Symphony No.6 is already pretty good however, with the then brand-new Russian National Orchestra already having an acclaimed recording of the work under its belt from 1995 with the Virgin Classics label. I’ve been a huge devotee of this work since studying it at secondary school in the UK, and must have heard dozens of versions in my time. That with Antonio Pappano on EMI is still a big favourite (see review), but Pletnev’s earlier recording is excellent as well. Despite carping from some other camps I still find Pletnev’s Beethoven symphonies utterly thrilling, and came to this new Tchaikovsky recording with no negative preconceptions. I left it with very few positive feelings however, and with the sad impression that Pletnev’s star is on the wane.

Pletnev’s general view of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 has changed a little since the last recording. The outer movements are more expansive, and the tempos in the first movement are certainly slower than before. This given, it becomes even harder to generate real excitement and intensity, and in the end this is not an improvement. Something which also swiftly becomes apparent is the qualities in the recording, which somehow prevent the orchestra becoming really integrated and ‘more than the sum of its parts’. From an opening bassoon solo which is rather unrealistically close in the mix, the sound picture is more of a collage of different instrumental sections. The violins are a bit close and wobbly to start with, but retreat and gel a little more with the Vaseline-lens treatment the big tune is given at 5:00 in. Woodwinds are nicely placed and given plenty of detail, and we’re almost allowed to sit in the clarinet’s laps. Horns burble away happily enough, but the brass when it kicks in at 4:00 is against the back wall somewhere and relatively indirect in terms of impact to start with, becoming more focussed with increase in volume later on. These effects are less apparent with the SACD layer, but you’ll notice them for sure in conventional stereo. This is not to say this is necessarily a really bad recording, nor even a bad performance. I’m perhaps being overly picky here, but we’re in studio recording land and never quite allowed to forget it. It’s hard enough to build an effective atmosphere in a studio recording, but when seeking the illusion of something which would make for a white-hot concert performance it’s is the art of the engineer to allow us to forget the microphones and live entirely in the music, and to my mind this doesn’t come off in this case.

Interestingly, there is a point at which the sound gels more, and that’s when everyone is playing at full pelt. The dynamics in this recording are wide, and the depth of detail in the tuttis is a compensation. The timpani do spoil this effect a little, being rather too close and massive to be really credible. I keep coming back to aspects of the recording, but this is something which to my ears does distract from the performance, which is OK, but nothing which will be relegating any of my alternatives to the dustier corners of the archive. The Allegro con grazia second movement is good enough, but could be a bit more sprightly and forward moving. The whole thing does lack somewhat in real intensity. There is some life in the Allegro molto vivace, but I’ve heard better disciplined violins, and the transparency is compromised on occasion. It sounds more dutiful than inspired, and we’ve all started reading our newspapers or flicking through TV channels with the sound down by that moment at the end of the movement at which everyone is supposed mistakenly to break out into spontaneous applause.

Gawd, the final movement. I’m sorry to say this just drags. I can take a slower tempo in this music, but it has to have passion. With this of all symphonic movements you need to be feeling the walls around you being dismantled until you are left, alone, naked and adrift on an unforgiving sea of finite and tragic mortality. Pletnev moans a good deal on the rostrum, but this time around he can’t give me much of what I know this music can deliver. Lacking its gut-wrenching emotional punch, it almost becomes a caricature – a Disneyland man in a monster suit rather than the real thing; pathetic rather than Pathétique. There are also intonation issues: just which note are we supposed to be hearing at 3:00? This Symphony No.6 has a feeling of ‘trying too hard’ about just about every aspect of its production, and as a result loses just about every chance of becoming a statement with real emotional impact.

Alright, let’s do the Capriccio Italien to finish shall we? You can if you like – I think I’ve heard enough. But that oboe duet tune five minutes in – and the way those trumpets answer with fun Mediterranean vibrato, that’s nice isn’t it? Yes, but the piece is corny as hell anyway, and I’m all grumpy after the symphony – those musicians have no right to sound as if they are relaxed and enjoying themselves...

Dominy Clements