TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 3 in D Major, Op. 29, “Polish”; Coronation March – Russian National Orch./ Mikhail Pletnev – PentaTone multichannel SACD PT 5186 383 [Distr. by Naxos], 52:07 ***1/2:

I’ve always had a fondness for Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies, and I’m not alone. One of my friends appreciates the symphonies in inverse order to their numbering and date composition, liking the First best, abhorring the Sixth. I won’t go so far as that, but one advantage of the relative neglect, at least in the concert hall, of the first three symphonies is that they haven’t become as hackneyed as the “great” final three. Not that the early symphonies are strangers to the recording studio: among the five hundred recordings of Tchaikovsky symphonies listed on Arkivmusic.com, there are no fewer than fifty-three devoted to the Third, some of them classics or near classics (Markevitch, Svetlanov, Jansons, Muti, Maazel), though as always, the “classic” designation depends on who’s doing the rating. (For example, I’ve always been majorly underwhelmed by Mariss Jansons’ supposedly benchmark interpretation on Chandos.)

This is the second go-around for Mikhail Pletnev, his first recording having been set down by Deutsche Gramophon in 1996 and included in his integral set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies. As has generally been the case with the new SACD versions from PentaTone, the recordings are elevated by finer standards of playing on the part of Pletnev’s Russian National Orchestra and by much finer recorded sound. Interpretatively, however, Pletnev’s vision has remained constant in some cases. For example, in my opinion Pletnev’s reading of the First Symphony is just as wrongheaded in the new version as it was in the old. In the case of the Third, I haven’t sought out Pletnev’s older recording and so must rely on what I hear on the PentaTone release and what I remember hearing from other conductors.

Tchaikovsky’s Third can be regarded as a transitional work in several ways. Whereas the composer’s first two symphonies drew on Russian folk melody and, especially in the case of the First, seemed concerned with recreating typical Russian emotional states (introspection, melancholy, dreaminess), the Third is a more cosmopolitan musical effort. Tchaikovsky seems to pay homage to Schumann’s Third, also in five movements, right down to the ländler-like second movement in imitation of Schumann’s own. Tchaikovsky’s slightly gloomy Andante third movement seems the most Russian of the five. Even the finale Allegro con fuoco (tempo di Polacca), which gives the symphony its nickname, seems to generalize the Slavic influences—or rarefy them: Tchaikovsky injects an academically correct but stilted fugue into the middle of the movement. As far as I’m concerned, he could have done without it.

One element that really sets this symphony apart from the others, including Tchaikovsky’s last three, is the almost balletic nature of the score. The composer was working on Swan Lake at the same time (1875), and this seeming influence lends a rhythmic variety and liveliness that is matched, if at all, only by the Dionysian finale of the Second. The Third is dominated by syncopations and, in the codas of the first and last movements, by wild cross-rhythms underscored by the timpani. I recall a critical comment I read a long time ago about Stravinsky’s fondness for programming Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies; the commentator remarked at Stravinsky’s apparent lack of discernment in this case, but I think I understand his bias. At one time (long before he ill-advisedly tried his hand at twelve-tone music toward the end of his life), Stravinsky stated that “rhythm is all.” Hence, I believe, his attachment to Tchaikovsky’s rhythmically alive early symphonies, especially the Third.

It may seem like a small point, but this raises an issue I have with the current recording of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. There’s a remarkable barrage of timpani blows and a final long roll in the coda of the last movement that introduces a wildly inflected cross-rhythm into the mix. For me, this is one of the most memorable parts of the score, and I expect to hear it with utter clarity. I don’t know whether to put the blame on Pletnev or the engineers—or both—but this passage is smudged, fairly indistinct, and that’s a disappointment, though a disappointment I can live with in an otherwise very good performance. Pletnev’s performance, luckily, is. For the most part it’s rhythmically alive, sensitive to the admittedly limited emotional landscape of the work, injecting real feeling and even poetry into that very Russian Andante. Pletnev is more responsive than he sometimes is to the structure of the piece, building up the sonata-form outer movements with architectural clarity and forward momentum, with the exception of the second melody of opening movement. Here, I find Pletnev’s slow, rubato-laden tempo affected, but then it almost wouldn’t be a Pletnev interpretation if there weren’t at least one such overindulgence per recording. Like my gripe about the finale, this is a fairly minor irritation given the overall quality of Pletnev’s reading.

Tchaikovsky—his own severest critic—assessed the Coronation March he wrote for the investiture of Tsar Alexander III as “noisy, but weak.” I find it noisy but effective, an occasional piece that rises above the occasion. As usual, Pletnev is even more at home in Tchaikovsky’s shorter works, playing it as if it were central to the Tchaikovsky canon rather than on the appealing edges of same. The PentaTone engineers respond with a mighty noise of their own—this is a knockout recording.

With the exception I raise about the finale, the symphony benefits from big, rock-solid sound as well, close-up as with the other recordings in this series. So this is one of the finer issues in Pletnev’s latest round of Tchaikovsky symphonies, let down just a bit interpretively, as well as by short playing time. I have to say that among SACD recordings of the symphony, Neemi Järvi’s version on BIS, which includes some fascinating Tchaikovsky rarities, represents better value. But if you’ve been collecting Pletnev’s new round of Tchaikovsky, you needn’t hesitate to get this latest release. It’s among the conductor’s best outings.

—Lee Passarella