Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Hamlet Fantasy Overture

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Hamlet Fantasy Overture
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev
CATALOGUE NO: 453 449-2
The art of revealing the unfamiliar in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies is confined to the few – namely Mravinsky, Temirkanov and Celibidache. Pletnev is hardly in their league, and his cycle of the symphonies has been overpraised, but individual releases merit a second look by virtue of some interesting new companion pieces.

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It’s one of the paradoxes about this often glacial, sometimes passionately engaged figure that his First Symphony can be so stiff and stolid where the young Tchaikovsky is at his most freely inventive, while the occasional pieces flow wholesomely: no easy task given the attractively scored overture’s piecemeal treatment of the Danish and Russian anthems. Unlike the Marche slave, it is contemporary with its chosen symphony, as indeed is Hamlet, an appropriately lugubrious answer to the Fifth’s euphoric victory parade. Exposed scoring sometimes points up weaknesses in the RNO, not least some dodgy intonation among generally dim woodwind. Yet Pletnev sweepingly persuades us of Hamlet’s non-stop inspirations. And since the Fifth is the keenest-moving of his Tchaikovsky symphonies, this disc should be enough for those (rightfully) wary of the complete cycle.

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What a pity Tchaikovsky never lived to write an occasional piece for Chicago’s Schlesinger and Mayer Building, handsomely featured in Teldec’s graphics. It might have provided a justification for this disc. Instead, here are Romeo and Juliet and a performance of the Fourth where individuality seems synonymous with conducting vanity: to what purpose, for example, the ungainly, unmusical spurts in the second movement? Barenboim seems more interested in his interpretation than in the music: something of which Pletnev, sensible at least to Classical proportions, is never guilty.