Inspired Tchaikovsky

Russian National Orchestra
BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé applauds Mikhail Pletnev’s return to Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32: Fantasy for orchestra after Dante
Russian National Orchesta/Mikhail Pletnev

Just to be clear from the outset, this is not only a great improvement on Mikhail Pletnev’s previous, rather low-voltage account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (on DG), but an exceptionally fine version. I say this because the opening two and a half minutes are not so promising, with the clarinet melody not quite in tight ensemble with the strings but a fraction ahead, creating a slightly lurching effect. But once the main exposition starts, it’s clear that this is an inspired performance, both purposeful – resulting in a slightly swifter tempo than the previous recording– and fully alive to the music’s emotional thrust: witness how Pletnev reveals the music’s underlying despair by his use of rubato in the molto expressivo episode which ends the first thermatic subject.

There’s effective use of contrast too: after the tenebrous, vividly characterized woodwind and string murmurs which end the first movement, the following Andante cantabile opens with a real sense of calm, featuring a splendidly ripe-sounding horn solo (uncredited in the booklet) with just a touch of Russian-style vibrato. While alive to its expression, Pletnev directs the movement with suitable restraint, both confounding the critic Theodor Adorno’s charge that the music is ‘kitsch’ while also increasing the impact of the baleful ‘fate’ episodes.

Pletnev’s programme duplicates Mariss Janson’s critically acclaimed Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra version (reviewed in February 2011), also in realistic SACD sound. Compared to Jansons’s, Pletnev’s interpretation of the Fifth is generally leaner, with a clearer sense of the essential narrative thread in each movement. While Jansons brings out every incidental detail, Pletnev convincingly builds his performance around one key climax in each movement: the brass in the final climax of the first movement has real punch, and again, in the slow movement, the second sudden appearance of the ‘fate’ theme comes as a genuine shock.

Yet Pletnev and his orchestra never skimp on characterization. Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s very Lisztian tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, proves not only an excellent showcase for the Russian National Orchestra’s razor-sharp ensemble, but it also a brilliant realization of Tchaikovsky’s theatrical portrayal of Dante’s hell, vividly characterizing both the wailing of the damned and the howling wind in which they are caught. In the central section there is real warmth and sympathy in Pletnev’s (and Tchaikovsky’s) portrayal of the condemned lovers, most seductively drawn by strings and woodwind.

Performance *****

Recording  ***** 

Alexey Bruni
Rebecca Franks talks with the leader of the Russian National Orchestra about interpreting Tchaikovsky

As leader of the orchestra, how would you describe your role for this recording?

I’m the spearhead of musical activities for the orchestra. Mikhail and I have been friends since childhood and our musical training followed similar paths. My job is to understand the conductor, and Ii hope that I do that well enough. And his conducting style is exceptional in that everything is clear.

There’s a compelling sense of drive and a clear sense of architecture in these particular performances…

Pletnev has a staggering mastery of musical forms and of ‘musical time’. The more difficult the form of a composition is, the more easily he seems to manage it. He know exactly what he wants, ask the orchestra too play expressively and has a great feeling for the balance of sound. He avoids cheap effects and instead he reveals the period, character, condition and the shades of meaning of the music – everything that is essential.

Both the Symphony and Francesca da Rimini are concerned with fate – can you tell us a bit about this theme in Tchaikovsky?

The theme of Fate is as important for Tchaikovsky as it is for Beethoven. But while Beethoven seems to struggle with fate, for Tchaikovsky ‘Fate’ is ooften tied up with the tragic side of life. And for him music is a reflection of life – think of the Manfred Symphony, the Hamlet Fantasy Overture, the Queen of Spades and the Sixth Symphony. With both the Fifth Symphony and Francesca da Riminia it seems to me that the main thing to realize is that love is stronger than death.

How would you describe the Russian National Orchestra’s relationship with the music of Tchaikovsky?

The RNO hugely admires Tchaikovsky, and it’s reflected in our concert programmes and recordings – we play all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works. Pletnev’s utmost creative achievement is in Tchaikovsky. For this recordin we played with great enthusiasm, and completed it very quickly, without any additional takes.