New RNO recording full of emotion, drama

03.29.11
Russian National Orchestra
Washington Post

By Mark J. Estren

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

The first recording by the Russian National Orchestra, made just a year after Mikhail Pletnev founded the ensemble in 1990, was a gorgeously played and emotionally revelatory reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 that instantly placed Pletnev and the RNO in the forefront of modern interpreters of this composer. This new recording of Symphony No. 4 keeps them there.

From the opening proclamation of the “fate” motif on burnished brass, through a first movement handled with tone-poem flair so its length does not seem ungainly and its episodic nature makes perfect sense, Pletnev shows his clear understanding of and empathy for Tchaikovsky’s music. Fast sections are a touch speedier than usual, slow ones a touch slower, resulting in increased drama that climaxes at the movement’s end with a broad and portentous conclusion.

The second movement provides nice balance, rocking gently and not wallowing in the emotionalism of the first. It is followed by a quicksilver, wonderfully buoyant pizzicato Scherzo that flits and dances hither and yon, enfolding a rollicking Trio in which the woodwind playing is outstanding. Then the finale bursts like thunder on the scene, with Pletnev’s pacing and the excellent playing of the scurrying strings and dramatic brass combining to produce a thrilling and highly dramatic conclusion. The clear, warm Super Audio CD sound adds to the impact of the performance.

SACD quality benefits “Romeo and Juliet,” too. In the work’s gloom-laden opening, its speedy and intense musical confrontation of Montagues and Capulets, and the gorgeous viola playing introducing the famous “love theme,” the sonic warmth and precision enhance and beautifully reflect Tchaikovsky’s emotion-laden overture. From the start to the final tragic ending, this is a dramatic, lovingly crafted and insightful performance by musicians who seem to feel the music as well as understand it.