SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 2 in c, “Little Russian”; Symphony No. 2, original first movt. – Russian Nat. Orch./ Mikhail Pletnev – PentaTone

Great reading, poor coupling, short timing—what’s a buyer to do?

Published on July 10, 2012

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 2 in c, Op. 17, “Little Russian”; Symphony No. 2, original first movement (1872) – Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev – PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 382, 48:12 [Distr. by Naxos] (6/26/12)***1/2:

This is the penultimate issue of Pletnev’s second Tchaikovsky cycle, now in surround sound on PentaTone. His previous cycle on DGG garnered much praise in the British press, but not many other places, due to its sterile and lackluster interpretative façade. The Russian National Orchestra, Pletnev’s non-State baby, was technically very good but rather bland in overall tonal character. He did give the Sixth Symphony one more go on Virgin Classics, but the remakes here are in most ways superior.

Audiophile Audition’s Lee Passarella and I have been covering these issues, and I think for the most part we are seeing these new releases eye to eye. He dissed the First—for reasons he states in his review I am inclined to agree–and the Michael Tilson Thomas standard (his DGG Boston Symphony recording) doesn’t appear to be threatened anywhere on the horizon. The Fourth and Fifth symphonies are terrific, eccentric in ways that make sense and featuring a no-holds-barred approach that, while not always successful, remain exciting in their failures and brilliantly genius-laden in their successes. The Sixth, according to Passarella, “really pushes the envelope in the outer movements as far as emotional expression is concerned but ultimately succeeds in creating the atmosphere of deep longing and sorrow that Tchaikovsky must have envisioned. This Sixth is the finest Tchaikovsky symphony performance I’ve heard from a conductor whose second go at the repertoire is proving to be nigh indispensable.” Sound good so far?

The Third is not yet with us, but now we have what proves to be a crackerjack Second, not too surprising from my standpoint as this orchestra is currently geared for explosive sounds. The piece is nicknamed “Little Russian”, so called because the composer was in the Ukraine when he wrote it, and used three Ukrainian folk songs in the piece. It was immediately popular though the composer became increasingly dissatisfied with it and insisted on rewriting much of the first movement, and making smaller changes and orchestrations to the rest (more on that in a moment). Overall this is not one of the composer’s deepest works—it avoids the intellect but more than challenges the emotions and provides one really wild ride at the end. It consistently has proved its popularity over the years. To date, my favorite versions have been by Giulini (EMI), Igor Markevitch (Philips), and Andrew Litton (Virgin Classics).

Pletnev knows how to build to the big chorale, scurry long with the many string whirlwinds ever-present in the piece, and give us brassy blow-you-away entrances that are only just this side of over-the-top. There is no quarter to slackness or mellowness; he treats this work as the blowsy blockbuster it is, and in the end we come away very satisfied.

But I have to remind myself that I am reviewing all aspects of this recording, and though the performance and surround sound are sensational, the filler is somewhat shady and scurrilous. While it is interesting to have Tchaikovsky’s first 1872 go at the first movement, the interest ends after one hearing, especially when we realize just how correct the composer was to schedule a rewrite. It’s not that the first sketch was bad, just that seven years later he ideas had progressed to the point that made the first try obsolete. Even the composer knew the work was somewhat hysterical: “My God! How difficult, noisy, disjointed and muddle-headed this is!” Though one could argue that not much changed in terms of the above-mentioned adjectives, structurally and developmentally the changes simply make the symphony that much more winning. So do we need this first movement in its original form, sans anything else? No, I am afraid we don’t, and any number of fillers would have been preferable, especially as the timing is already a paltry 48 minutes. This alone might deter some from acquiring this issue, which is a shame since the symphony itself is so good. So PentaTone suffers star-loss for this reason.

But I would still buy it. And if No. 3 turns out well, we shall really be on to something…

—Steven Ritter




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