Russian Overtures & Orchestral Works (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802037 (2-disc set).

Russian pianist, conductor, and composer Mikhail Pletnev founded the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the first orchestra since the Russian Revolution in 1917 not sponsored by the government. In over two decades since its formation, the orchestra under Pletnev has given us some of the most attractive and stimulating recorded music one could ever want, as this two-disc set attests. Originally recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, the Newton Classics label, who specialize in bringing back older, noteworthy recordings, have now reissued it at mid price.

Disc one contains nine short overtures and preludes, starting with Mikhail Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. It makes for an extraordinarily exciting opening number, with Pletnev attempting to set a new land speed record. The virtuosity and precision of the Russian National Orchestra are remarkable, and this piece makes a fine introduction to their skills, as well as a fine curtain-raiser.

Then we get more of the same with Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor Overture, although at a marginally more-relaxed pace appropriate to the less-frenetic nature of the music. Next, we find Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, something of a rarity for the composer, very joyous and happy for him, perhaps in celebration of Stalin's death the year before he wrote it.

And so it goes through Sergei Prokofiev's "Introduction" to his Semyon Kotko Suite, Dmitri Kabelevsky's Colas Breugnon Overture, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride Overture. Modest Mussorgsky's Dawn on the Moscow River is particularly affecting, Peter Tchaikovsky's early Overture in F is at least intriguing, and Alexander Glazunov's Overture solennelle provides a rousing conclusion to the first disc.

Disc two covers the works of only three composers. It begins with three selections by Anatoli Liadov:  Baba Yaga, The Enchanted Lake, and Kikimora, the music running the gamut from boisterous to beguiling to slightly morose. Following those, we get two pieces I'd never heard before: Nikolai Tcherepnin's La Princesse lointaine and The Enchanted Kingdom, music lush, striking, and romantic.  And the second disc ends with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's Golden Cockerel, close to half an hour's worth as arranged by Glazunov and Steinberg.

All of this music is quite colorful, and Pletnev never fails to exploit every melodramatic turn and every delicate nuance. He has clearly proven his worth over the years, and one hopes he has put any personal troubles behind him and continues offering up beautiful music for many years to come.

Recorded in 1993-94 at the Concert Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the sound is clean, smooth, and highly dynamic. It can also be a tad soft and lacking in the frequency extremes, especially on the first disc, with little high-end sparkle and only occasional low-end punch. While the result is more cushy comfortable than analytical, it is easy to listen to. Compared to, say, Georg Solti's Romantic Russia album with the London Symphony (Decca or LIM), the sonics on the Pletnev discs seem rather balmy and lightweight, with only the occasional bass drum to liven things up. Still, as I say, the set makes for easy listening.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa