Review: Tchaikovsky Selections

Pletnev’s masterly survey of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works with the Russian National Orchestra continues with this stunning recording of some of his most famous works in performances which will delight fans and win over sceptics.

Tchaikovsky is one of those unfortunate composers who, in spite of his gift for dramatic, vivid orchestration and a knack for writing memorable melodies (which rapidly become ‘ear worms’), nevertheless elicits eye rolling and condescension among those who dislike his popular, emotional appeal. Some even find his works over-wrought and clichéd. It is true however that a typical climax in Tchaikovsky’s music is as recognisable as the so-called ‘Rossini crescendo’, with a skilful blend of repeated motifs, shifting harmonies and a changing palette of orchestral colours to create a frenzy. For anyone looking for a rich conspectus of the master at work, this new release from Pentatone of Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra is enthralling.

The first piece, the Coronation March of 1883 is a bold choice. Bold, because it sounds like a pastiche of Tchaikovsky with just about every trick in the book (although the main theme does sound decidedly workmanlike). The composer was reportedly dismissive of this cheerful work but Pletnev gives it a fine sense of pomp, with a sure and steady pace, vibrant orchestral colours and some fine brass playing.

With the popular and much-loved Capriccio italien, Pletnev is given a better opportunity to explore the exquisite colours in Tchaikovsky’s score from mournful, crooning strings to playful woodwinds, resonant brass and exhilarating orchestral tutti. Everything is under control: it’s detailed and precise but without ever sounding forced or losing its seductive nostalgia. And it builds to a thrilling climax with a triumphant statement of the by now familiar popular theme in a performance to bring the house down.

The heart of this album is undoubtedly the startling account of the tragic tone poem Francesca da Rimini which was based on a passage from Dante’s Inferno in which the narrator meets the ill-fated Francesca da Rimini and her lover who have been consigned to the second circle of Hell. Tchaikovsky wrote this dark and brooding work on his return from the first season of the Bayreuth festival in 1876 which he was covering for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости) and it’s possibly the most Lisztian of all his works. In the first section he borrows a number of Lisztian tropes such as wandering recitatives, ominously descending motifs in the base,  and repeated, insistent statements of themes as the orchestra struggles to move on. In the Russian National Orchestra’s hands, the depiction of Hell and the violent storm encasing the doomed lovers is terrifying. Around the halfway mark, we are back in solid Tchaikovsky territory with yearning strings and florid woodwinds conveying a desperate optimism which is crushed by cruel fate. There are a few more Lisztian flourishes but the ending is pure Tchaikovsky. It’s a magnificent performance.

The orchestra is bristling and alive in Romeo and Juliet, a work whose many qualities are often overlooked by virtue of its familiarity. But it is a splendid work, packed with intricate details which are on full display here. And for the Marche Slave, played here with great gusto, Tchaikovsky includes pretty much everything to annoy the purists: memorable tunes (including the Russian National Anthem), chirpy woodwinds, loud percussion, a jolly march and an exciting gallop to the breathtaking end. Did Tchaikovsky miss out anything ? The canons, perhaps.

Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 5 stars. 

Kevin Painting

Published 13 May 2016 on primephonic.

PTC5186550_coverAlbum Details

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky Selections
Coronation March, Capriccio Italien, Francesca da Rimini, Romeo and Juliet, Marche Slave
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev

Pentatone 5186550