When Mikhail Pletnev’s new full price Tchaikovsky cycle launched
on PentaTone with No. 4, a hostile critic elsewhere had the
chutzpah to ask, “Does Pletnev even like Tchaikovsky?” I was
a little flabbergasted. I’ve been fairly brutal to a few artists
(search for violinist Charlie Siem on this site, or Tzimon Barto’s
Schubert), but that just sounds cruelly unfair. Why doubt the
very integrity of a performer setting music before us?
Then I put on this Fifth. It’s not that it is sloppily phrased;
the performance, up until the finale, is hardly phrased at all.
Everyone sounds bored, and then the finale comes along and Pletnev
begins to assert himself. It’s at that point that the players
switch from bored to annoyed.
The brooding introduction goes perfectly fine, although there
are a few fleeting moments where the clarinet and strings are
out of sync. The main allegro has a quick speed which initially
holds promise, but is marred by problems,. There are recurring
issues with the strings and especially with the violins holding
together. There’s also a truly preposterous slow-down into the
second subject, in which everyone crashes to a halt at once.
Pletnev adds some luftpauses for effect.
The andante’s opening horn solo is emotionally indifferent,
which is quite an achievement. It has a watery, wobbly tone
such as the Slovak radio bands once had on Marco Polo; that
is to say, not an appealing one. In the movement’s first climax,
the trombones and trumpets become strangely reticent (at 5:00
they might as well be on holiday). The new material in the sixth
and seventh minutes lacks much forward momentum and certain
phrases (7:20) are slowed down so much that by the time they
finish whatever energy the music had is gone. The outbursts
therefore make no sense, especially because they are followed
up with more deadness. Compare this with Daniele Gatti’s reading
with the Royal Philharmonic, similarly slow but with an extraordinary
range of pacing and great versatility of mood - not to mention
one of the most breathtaking French horn solos in the business.
Gatti knows how to make transitions between numerous tempi while
keeping the music flowing with luscious inevitability. I don’t
think Pletnev is even trying. At least the really big climax
near the end sounds lovely.
The waltz passes without incident, but the finale might be the
most egregiously bad performance yet. The opening string statement
lacks any kind of sharpness. The trumpets sound timid and infected
with a quasi-religious solemnity, and the main allegro begins
at a drab tempo until Pletnev adds an utterly ridiculous jolt
to the tempo at 4:00. More silly tempo increases take place
later (5:22, 7:43). I like rubato: I just like it to feel planned
rather than a mistake. Listen to what happens at 6:40: the orchestra
is made to squat on a chord as if it’s got a fermata on. Then
when that whim has been indulged, Pletnev has them go back to
the original slow tempo from the start of the allegro, not the
much faster variant from just a few notes before. The symphony’s
final chords are laughable. I preferred the movements where
the orchestra sounded conductorless.
Listen, the bottom line is this: there are a lot of amazing
recordings of this symphony. Even setting a cut-off date of
2005, we have Jansons live in Bavaria, Gatti’s thrilling RPO
reading, Antonio Pappano’s noble account on EMI, Andris Nelsons
in Birmingham, the lavish Philadelphia/Eschenbach SACD, and
youth orchestras helmed by Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel,
plus reissues of the classic recordings by Karajan, Szell, Mravinsky,
Abbado, Bernstein, Jansons/Oslo, Svetlanov, Markevitch, and
Ormandy. DG even reissued Mikhail Pletnev’s first Tchaikovsky
cycle, and since 2005 there have been, amazingly, no fewer than
three separate reappearances of the Muti recording. I
personally own the Szell, Antoni Wit, Pappano, Gatti, Mravinsky/DG,
Mravinsky live (Brilliant), Ormandy, Muti, Paul Kletzki, Solti,
Jansons/Oslo, and Lovro von Matacic recordings and would take
them all over this.
There is a coupling of Francesca da Rimini, and the sound
quality is good unless it is responsible for the odd balances
between orchestral sections, but, frankly, whatever. I still
think it may be rude to ask whether Mikhail Pletnev likes Tchaikovsky.
But did we really need this recording? And do you really want
to hear it?