Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Also, Francesca da Rimini. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 385.

The Symphony No. 5 (1888) by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is a personal favorite of mine, and I would hardly have trusted anybody to do it more justice than Maestro Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra. Here, he provides a reasoned, well-proportioned account of the score, without as much of the histrionics we have come to expect from this music. In other words, he doesn't make the piece a show horse, choosing instead to take a more moderate, sensitive approach. It may or may not work for you. To each his own.

The opening Andante sounds fluid, the "fate" theme well defined. But when the composer opens it up to a full-fledged Allegro con anima, the music doesn't have quite the full-throated passion we sometimes hear. In the slow Andante that follows, Pletnev connects the dots, so to speak. We can feel the natural relationship between this leisurely, poetic section and the music that preceded it. So, with Pletnev this is not to be a symphony of contrasts but one of unity, with the recurring hints of "fate" well integrated into the whole.

The little third-movement Valse reminds us that Tchaikovsky wrote some of the most lyrical ballet music ever created. However, again Pletnev never overplays it, determined to bring out the more elegant, symphonic characteristics in the notes. Then, in the finale the composer gives us basically a repeat of the first movement, complete with a slow introduction, the restatement of fate, an energetic march, and a triumphant conclusion. Nevertheless, maintaining his stylish vision to the end, Pletnev seems a tad sedate compared to the more-animated interpretations of people like Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic (DG), Muti and the New Philharmonia (EMI), Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos), or even Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips). Frankly, while I admired Pletnev's intentions, I prefer a more red-blooded rendering of the music.

The companion piece on the disc is Tchaikovsky's tone poem (or symphonic fantasy) Francesca da Rimini (1877). The music tells the story of an illicit love affair that ends in tragedy, so you know you're in for some heavy melodrama here. Pletnev, though, tends to overintellectualize much of it, particularly in the beginning, and it doesn't convey the fervor of Stokowski's old Everest performance. There is no denying the punch of the music in its second half, though, and Pletnev does a fine job communicating the final anguish of events.

PentaTone recorded the multichannel sound at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2010, and they make it available on the current hybrid disc in five-channel SACD as well as two-channel CD and SACD. So, depending on your playback equipment, you have a choice of options. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

The sound is pleasant, if not very exceptional in any way. It is very smooth, exhibiting a moderate degree of front-to-rear depth, a good dynamic range, and adequate impact, easily evident in the SACD playback mode. The areas that are slightly lacking involve ultimate midrange transparency, where things are a tad soft; air around the instruments, where things are a bit flat; and frequency extremes, bass and treble, which are not too deep or sparkling. Not that there is anything terribly wrong in these areas; they just aren't quite in the audiophile range.


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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.

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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