Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (SACD review)

Also Capriccio italien. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 386.

When I saw a while back that Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev was re-recording the Tchaikovsky symphonies, I said to myself, "Huh?" I mean, he had already recorded them twice since forming the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the Sixth for Virgin and whole cycle for DG. Now he was doing them all over again for PentaTone? Was it a matter if at first you don't succeed...? I don't think so, as his earlier performances are still among the finest, most-intense you can buy. Was it a matter of his wanting to record them all in the best-possible sound with some of the latest audio technology, Super Audio CD? Perhaps, although his earlier discs already sounded pretty good, and the market for SACD's is pretty slim. Anyway, here we have another Tchaikovsky entry from the man, his third recording of the Sixth Symphony.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) premiered his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, in 1893, only a few years after his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, ended their odd personal and financial association and the very year the composer died of cholera. Compounding the enigma, the composer spoke of the work as a "programme symphony; however, its programme is to remain a mystery to all... It is drenched with my innermost essence; while composing it in my mind, I was constantly shedding bitter tears." Tchaikovsky's allusions to fate and his brother's suggestion that he subtitle the piece "Pathetique" (evoking sadness, sorrow, pity, or touching the emotions in general) only add to the tragic mystery.

Anyway, compared to Pletnev's 1991 Virgin recording, which I had on hand, the conductor takes the great, sweeping Adagio that opens the work at a slightly less brisk gait than he did before. This time, it has a more regal demeanor, with a more rhapsodic central theme than ever. Then Pletnev makes up in melancholy what he loses in intensity.

In the ensuing Allegro con grazia, there is little difference in how Pletnev approaches the waltz, once more demonstrating a lively and flowing pace, with only the Trio section providing a momentary contrast to the mood.

Following that, we get the Scherzo, the Allegro molto vivace, where Pletnev rouses us with his lead-in to the big march tune, becoming more vigorous and thrilling as it goes along, although, again, perhaps not exactly to the same extent of his 1991 account.

Lastly, rather than wow us with a huge, splashy, Technicolor finish, Tchaikovsky ends with a lament, an Adagio lamentosa, which begins in despair and concludes in recognition and a final calm. As he did in the first movement, Pletnev slows down his reading somewhat from before, taking more time with the tragedy and resignation and closing more peacefully. While I can't say I liked Pletnev's new interpretation any better or any worse than his first recorded performance, it definitely shows differences, and the first one did move me a tad more, which counts for a lot.

The coupling is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, Op. 45, from 1880, a far lighter, more festive piece of music. Pletnev doesn't generate as much outright excitement or the set the blood to racing as several other conductors do (Kondrashin, for instance), but Polyhymnia certainly records him well.

The sound, which Polyhymnia recorded for PentaTone at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in June of 2010, comes in conventional stereo and multichannel on a hybrid SACD. If you have the playback capability for the SACD format, you can listen that way; if you have only a regular CD player, you can play it back in regular stereo. I listened in two channels to both the standard CD and SACD renderings, noting that the SACD version has small but clearly distinct advantages in frequency response, dynamic range, and impact.

The midrange is warm and smooth, with good definition. The bass is strong, with a decent wallop from time to time. The treble appears well extended, seldom being edgy or forward. There is a solid punch all the way around, especially at the low end; a wide stereo spread; good instrument separation; and satisfactory orchestral depth. Like other installments in this Pletnev/Tchaikovsky PentaTone cycle, the sound is of near-audiophile quality, acquitting itself nicely and never failing to rise to the occasion when the music calls for grand, clear, undistorted crescendos.

Compared to the sonics of the earlier Virgin release, by the way, this new SACD sounds a touch fuller, weightier, and sometimes brighter, but for that matter neither recording will disappoint.


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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa