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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa