Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: PentaTone
WORKS: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32; Fantasy for orchestra after Dante
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 385 (hybrid CD/SACD)


Just to be clear from the outset, this is not only a great improvement on Mikhail Pletnev’s previous, rather low-voltage account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (on DG), but an exceptionally fine version. I say this because the opening two and a half minutes are not so promising, with the clarinet melody not quite in tight ensemble with the strings but a fraction ahead, creating a slightly lurching effect. But once the main exposition starts, it’s clear that this is an inspired performance, both purposeful – resulting in a slightly swifter tempo than the previous recording – and fully alive to the music’s emotional thrust: witness how Pletnev reveals the music’s underlying despair by his use of rubato in the molto espressivo episode which ends the first thematic subject.

There’s effective use of contrast too: after the tenebrous, vividly characterised woodwind and string murmurs which end the first movement, the following Andante cantabile opens with a real sense of calm, featuring a splendidly ripe-sounding horn solo (uncredited in the booklet) with just a touch of Russian-style vibrato. While alive to its expression, Pletnev directs the movement with suitable restraint, both confounding the critic Theodor Adorno’s charge that the music is ‘kitsch’ while also increasing the impact of the baleful ‘fate’ episodes.

Pletnev’s programme duplicates Mariss Jansons’s critically acclaimed Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra version (reviewed in February 2011), also in realistic SACD sound. Compared to Jansons’s, Pletnev’s interpretation of the Fifth is generally leaner, with a clearer sense of the essential narrative thread in each movement. While Jansons brings out every incidental detail, Pletnev convincingly builds his performance around one key climax in each movement: the brass in the final climax of the first movement has real punch, and again, in the slow movement, the second sudden appearance of the ‘fate’ theme comes as a genuine shock.


Yet Pletnev and his orchestra never skimp on characterisation. Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s very Lisztian tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, proves not only an excellent showcase for the Russian National Orchestra’s razor-sharp ensemble, but is also a brilliant realisation of Tchaikovsky’s theatrical portrayal of Dante’s hell, vividly characterising both the wailing of the damned and the howling wind in which they are caught. In the central section there is real warmth and sympathy in Pletnev’s (and Tchaikovsky’s) portrayal of the condemned lovers, most seductively drawn by strings and woodwind. Daniel Jaffé