TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13, “Winter Dreams”; Marche Slav, Op. 31 – Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 381, 55:21 [Distr. by Naxos] **(*):
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is very much an apprentice work. Unlike the final three symphonies, it doesn’t really have a program, stated or unstated, but it does have pictorial associations. Subtitled “Winter Dreams” (which is more often translated as “Winter Daydreams”), its first two movements bear titles as well: “Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.”
Having just accepted a post as professor at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky had little free time to work on the symphony, so he labored—apparently long and hard—on it during the nighttime hours. Tchaikovsky turned to Nikolai Rubinstein, the director of the Conservatory, for a critical appraisal of the work, and Rubinstein didn’t stint in his criticism. Tchaikovsky tinkered with the piece over the course of two years until it was debuted for an enthusiastic audience in February of 1868. Despite all the troubles the work caused him, Tchaikovsky was fond of the piece—fond enough to revise it further in 1874. As late as 1883, by which time he was an international success, he stated to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that the symphony had more substance than many of his more mature works, which at this point included the Symphony No. 4, Eugene Onegin, and Swan Lake.
The First Symphony is a charmer, and I’ve been partial to it since I first encountered it in a Mercury recording of the early symphonies performed by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony, which I guess has been retired from the catalog. My next encounter with the First came with the DGG recording of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony, a performance that I think can still stand as a model in this work. Checking the timing of Mikhail Pletnev’s latest recording on PentaTone, it seems the conductor’s thoughts haven’t changed at all since he committed the symphony to disc for DGG back in the 1990s. As far as I’m concerned, his approach to the first movement was wrongheaded then and remains so. In Pletnev’s hands, the first movement is a strangely bipolar affair. It starts off very slowly, the phrasing choppy, notes oddly detached. The dreamy second theme is delivered at a tempo that suggests sleepwalking, none of the music so far coming close to Tchaikovsky’s tempo marking of Allegro tranquillo. But then in the bridge passage following the second theme, Pletnev leaps into action, flying along as if he’s just realized he hasn’t put enough money in the parking meter. And so the movement goes, lurching between slow-and-easy-wins-the-race and hell-bent-for-leather. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky is the loser here.
There’s more poetry in Pletnev’s second movement—there would almost have to be—and tempi are certainly more equable in the scherzo and finale, but that first movement takes this recording out of contention—a pity since the only rival version on SACD I’m aware of is a BIS recording by Neemi Jarvi that has received lukewarm notices.
As usual, Pletnev is more successful in bringing life to the filler, Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave; this is a crackling performance, in sound that’s typical of the Polyhymnia crew working in Moscow. The venue may be a recording studio, but the close-up sound has a wonderful airiness to it, as well as a fine sense of depth. And those tam-tam strokes near the end of the piece are a lease-breaker for sure!
At least Pletnev’s earlier DGG recording provided an additional work, Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem.
A 10-year anniversary of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society gets a welcome vinyl upgrade.