Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Marche Slave. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 381.

Maestro Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra continue their march through the Tchaikovsky symphonies, with only a few more remaining in the cycle. When they finish, PentaTone will probably gather all the recordings together in a complete box set. Who knows. In the meantime, Pletnev has not exactly knocked me over with his eloquent but rather cautious interpretations of Symphonies Nos. 4-6. With No. 1, however, he seems more in command, more in control; either that, or his recent conservative streak better suits the music of No. 1.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in G minor "Winter Daydreams," Op. 13 in 1866 when he was only twenty-six years old. It was among his first large-scale works, and in a way it was somewhat experimental for him. Always the self-doubter, he revised it during the next two years, premiering the completed piece in 1868 and then revising it further in 1874. Although the composer would go on to produce far more dramatic things, in the First Symphony he was at his most lyrical, his most rhapsodic. Perhaps that's why Pletnev, who seems to be becoming more restrained and careful in his approach to music lately, finds himself so secure in the music.

The symphony begins with a movement subtitled "Daydreams on a Winter Journey," which the composer didn't really mean as programmatic so much as evocative. He marked it Allegro tranquillo, and most of it is peacefully lyrical, with Pletnev making the most of it by taking his time in an easygoing, highly poetic manner. We can almost feel the snowflakes swirling around us as we imagine a musical traveler moving through the snowy countryside in an open carriage. Or some such picturesque image.

The second, slow movement, marked Adagio cantabile ma non tanto ("Leisurely, songlike, a little fast but not too much") Tchaikovsky subtitled "Land of Desolation, Land of Mists," and you can guess what sort of imagery that conjures up. Tchaikovsky wrote a lovely, plaintive melody for oboe that Pletnev draws out deliciously.

The composer abandons subtitles for the final two movements, a Scherzo and Finale. Pletnev elicits the best from the Scherzo, making it appropriately playful and doing a good job with the waltz tune at its core, one of the first of many such waltzes that would become a hallmark of Tchaikovsky's music. The Finale, which under Pletnev is perhaps a shade too relaxed, features variations on an old Russian folk song, making it the most "Russian" sounding part of the composition. Tchaikovsky always liked his First Symphony, something he could not bring himself to say about too much of his other work. The performance is also Pletnev's best work in his PentaTone Tchaikovsky cycle thus far.

The album concludes with the Slavonic March, Op. 31 from 1876, a patriotic and triumphant affair that predates the composer's 1812 Overture by several years but bears remarkable resemblances. Here in the Slavonic March Pletnev finally lets the brakes off and goes full throttle. It's among the best, most exciting interpretations of the work you're likely to hear.

Polyhymnia International recorded the performances at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2011. The sound they obtain is smooth and warm yet remarkably lifelike, captured in both two-channel stereo and multichannel surround on a hybrid SACD. As I heard it played back through a Sony SACD unit, it appears to have less of the ambient veiling I've heard on previous recordings from this source. Although the sound stage is not especially wide and the midrange not particularly transparent, the sonics do display a good orchestral depth, a strong bass, and a solid dynamic impact, so, overall, we get a pleasingly realistic aural presentation. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the sound best in the Marche Slave, perhaps because the music itself is so vigorous.


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