Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet Overture. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 384.

Of Tchaikovsky's six numbered symphonies and the Manfred Symphony, it's always been the final three numbered ones that have gotten the most attention. Perhaps it's because they are the most melodic, the most dramatic, and the most stirring of his symphonic output, as well as the most overtly Romantic. I don't know. In any case, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, in 1877-78, saying to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that he wanted to write on it "Dedicated to My Best Friend," meaning to her. In response, she persuaded him to write a program for the symphony, one he later withdrew because it caused him more trouble than it was worth. The result was the first of three symphonies that took the public by storm and never let it go to this day.

We would expect Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra to do a good job with Tchaikovsky, since they not only have it in their blood, they've recorded so much of it in the past (including the Symphony No. 4 for DG). For instance, in the Fourth Symphony's first movement after a moderate build up, Pletnev reaches a section the composer marks Moderato con anima, in which Pletnev most definitely emphasizes the anima part--lively, thrilling, animated, but never breathless or reckless.

Pletnev is always in control of the music no matter how tempestuous it sometimes gets. From there he settles into the more lyrical passages with grace and refinement. Like Beethoven, there is a "fate" motif involved, which breaks out continuously, but insofar as its relating to any specific meaning, Tchaikovsky is a little vague on the matter in his wordy description. As the composer decided so long ago, it's best to enjoy the symphony as pure music rather than "programme" music.

The Andantino that follows has never struck me as one of the composer's most inspired pieces of writing, but it does help bring the music (and the listener) back down to earth after the exhilaration of the first movement, and after a few minutes it does finally open up nicely. Then the playful little Scherzo, played in a pizzicato style, provides further relief before the big finale.

Pletnev attacks the final movement and its famous Russian folk song with commendable energy, although again he never goes overboard with excessively fast tempos. Instead, he prefers to let the music speak for itself, and it speaks most eloquently and excitingly.

The disc ends with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture in its final version of 1880. He had completed the first version eleven years earlier but it never quite satisfied him. The three sections of the Overture correspond to the three main elements of Shakespeare's play: Friar Lawrence, the families' dispute, and the young lovers. Naturally, it is the lovers' theme everybody remembers, one of the great love themes of all time, and Pletnev expresses it radiantly.

The sound, recorded at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2010, comes in regular stereo or in multichannel SACD if you have the capability to play it. I listened in two-channel and found the sonics pretty good, very smooth, very natural. However, I would also note that it's fairly warm, soft, and billowy, which, if looked at positively, could complement the character of some brighter, leaner, or more forward-sounding speakers. Oddly, too, the sound seems slightly muted in the biggest climaxes. In any case, these effects are mild. Otherwise, we get a modest stage depth, a wide dynamic range, and good transient impact, making for a reasonably pleasant presentation.


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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