Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 [46:48]
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 [24:30]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. June 2010, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia
PENTATONE PTC 5186 385 [71:18]
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?
I own thirteen recordings of this symphony, and this one is the thirteenth-best.