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CD Review

Russian Overtures

Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Deutsche Grammophon 439892-2 DDD 62:02
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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

  • "Manfred" Symphony, Op. 58
  • "The Tempest" Symphonic Fantasia, Op. 18
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Deutsche Grammophon 439891-2 DDD 75:42
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Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra need to slow down and relax a little. Last year, Deutsche Grammophon released this team's recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, coupled with The Rock, to moderate critical praise and pretty good sales. The warning signs were there, however, and a subclinical case of charmlessness has become full-blown with these two new releases.

No one can accuse Pletnev and the RNO of not trying to put on a good show. The technical aspects of the playing are very high, and the interpretations are calculated (are they ever!) to yield the maximum in kinetic excitement. For example, the overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla zips by at a supersonic 4:47, and generally speaking, if the composer gives the performers the chance to flex their muscles, they run with it. (Expectations are confounded, however, by a sleepy Colas Breugnon – Arthur Fiedler never would have approved.) The RNO brass is effective, even cocksure, and listeners who are familiar with the quality of Russian brass-playing, as we used to hear it on Melodiya releases from the 70s and earlier, will understand the level of the RNO's achievement. The great first-movement climax from Manfred is just one of the several moments on these two discs in which the RNO's brass challenges even Chicago's. It's easy to hear how proud the entire orchestra is of their prowess, but what's missing, and equally important, is affection for this music. That's particularly true for Manfred and for the rare overtures by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. Coates, Beecham, and Ormandy (to name just three) would have made these works sparkle and charm, but there's a mutton-headed persistence and a hard-hearted inflexibility to Pletnev's readings that does all of this music ill. In Manfred's second movement, an "Alpine fairy appear[s] to Manfred in a rainbow from the waterfall's spray," but Pletnev's fairy left her magic wand at home, and the waterfall that begat her seems to be powered a highly efficient mechanical pump. And, having recently heard Stokowski's 1954 recording of "Dawn on the Moskva River" from Khovanshchina, Pletnev's plain rendition will not do for me at all. There also are preferable recordings of The Tempest (Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sony) and Manfred (several choices – Rostropovich's equally intense but much more sensitive recording will be reissued by EMI any day now.) Spectacularly recorded and splendidly played, Pletnev and the RNO promise much, but their delivery is too intense and unyielding for music that wants to sing as well as excite.

Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle