Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (SACD review)

Also Capriccio italien. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 386.

When I saw a while back that Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev was re-recording the Tchaikovsky symphonies, I said to myself, "Huh?" I mean, he had already recorded them twice since forming the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the Sixth for Virgin and whole cycle for DG. Now he was doing them all over again for PentaTone? Was it a matter if at first you don't succeed...? I don't think so, as his earlier performances are still among the finest, most-intense you can buy. Was it a matter of his wanting to record them all in the best-possible sound with some of the latest audio technology, Super Audio CD? Perhaps, although his earlier discs already sounded pretty good, and the market for SACD's is pretty slim. Anyway, here we have another Tchaikovsky entry from the man, his third recording of the Sixth Symphony.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) premiered his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, in 1893, only a few years after his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, ended their odd personal and financial association and the very year the composer died of cholera. Compounding the enigma, the composer spoke of the work as a "programme symphony; however, its programme is to remain a mystery to all... It is drenched with my innermost essence; while composing it in my mind, I was constantly shedding bitter tears." Tchaikovsky's allusions to fate and his brother's suggestion that he subtitle the piece "Pathetique" (evoking sadness, sorrow, pity, or touching the emotions in general) only add to the tragic mystery.

Anyway, compared to Pletnev's 1991 Virgin recording, which I had on hand, the conductor takes the great, sweeping Adagio that opens the work at a slightly less brisk gait than he did before. This time, it has a more regal demeanor, with a more rhapsodic central theme than ever. Then Pletnev makes up in melancholy what he loses in intensity.

In the ensuing Allegro con grazia, there is little difference in how Pletnev approaches the waltz, once more demonstrating a lively and flowing pace, with only the Trio section providing a momentary contrast to the mood.

Following that, we get the Scherzo, the Allegro molto vivace, where Pletnev rouses us with his lead-in to the big march tune, becoming more vigorous and thrilling as it goes along, although, again, perhaps not exactly to the same extent of his 1991 account.

Lastly, rather than wow us with a huge, splashy, Technicolor finish, Tchaikovsky ends with a lament, an Adagio lamentosa, which begins in despair and concludes in recognition and a final calm. As he did in the first movement, Pletnev slows down his reading somewhat from before, taking more time with the tragedy and resignation and closing more peacefully. While I can't say I liked Pletnev's new interpretation any better or any worse than his first recorded performance, it definitely shows differences, and the first one did move me a tad more, which counts for a lot.

The coupling is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, Op. 45, from 1880, a far lighter, more festive piece of music. Pletnev doesn't generate as much outright excitement or the set the blood to racing as several other conductors do (Kondrashin, for instance), but Polyhymnia certainly records him well.

The sound, which Polyhymnia recorded for PentaTone at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in June of 2010, comes in conventional stereo and multichannel on a hybrid SACD. If you have the playback capability for the SACD format, you can listen that way; if you have only a regular CD player, you can play it back in regular stereo. I listened in two channels to both the standard CD and SACD renderings, noting that the SACD version has small but clearly distinct advantages in frequency response, dynamic range, and impact.

The midrange is warm and smooth, with good definition. The bass is strong, with a decent wallop from time to time. The treble appears well extended, seldom being edgy or forward. There is a solid punch all the way around, especially at the low end; a wide stereo spread; good instrument separation; and satisfactory orchestral depth. Like other installments in this Pletnev/Tchaikovsky PentaTone cycle, the sound is of near-audiophile quality, acquitting itself nicely and never failing to rise to the occasion when the music calls for grand, clear, undistorted crescendos.

Compared to the sonics of the earlier Virgin release, by the way, this new SACD sounds a touch fuller, weightier, and sometimes brighter, but for that matter neither recording will disappoint.


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