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I never thought of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" as dull music. If proof is needed, one can refer to the pioneering, first-ever complete version by Antal Dorati, the colourful, vibrant renderings by Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, or Herbert von Karajan (for abridged versions or the suite), the tragic ones by Evgeny Svetlanov, Anatole Fistoulari and Vladimir Fedoseyev, or even theatrical ones like Richard Bonynge - to name but those. And now we have Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra in a brand new recording of the complete ballet from 2009, published by Ondine.
Pletnev has proven a very uneven conductor on disc - his Tchaikovsky symphonies and orchestral works remain a controversial affair, while I found his take on "The Sleeping Beauty" anything but convincing. This new recording of "Swan Lake" is an even greater disappointment. Overall, what's lacking here is an imagination, a sense of atmosphere, a connection with the story - in fact Pletnev doesn't have a story. His "Swan Lake" ripples on like a varied collection of individual numbers, continually downplayed by his deadpan approach, distant and bloodless, his refusal to connect with the drama. The way he delivers the lakeside 2nd Act, that crucial moment in the story where Prince Siegfried meets the Swan Queen Odette for the first time, is a sorry example. It's a set piece where Tchaikovsky is at his most evocative, giving all the cues, yet in Pletnev's hands it's very much a non-event. Even the opening of the 2nd Act, featuring the famous Swan theme, refuses to go anywhere. Instead of setting the scene for this fateful encounter, Pletnev's rendering omits all sense of expectation and his swans bog down in a pond of indifference and boredom. The following pas d'action is only significant by its weird tempi changes (which seems to be a Pletnev trademark) but for the rest Pletnev's dispassionate account left me totally cold. The 3rd Act doesn't fare much better. In spite of some excellent solo work from the Russian National Orchestra, the national dances lack fire, character and colour. The only thing that sort of works in this recording is the finale, bold and yes, excitingly played, where Pletnev finally seems to have received a shot of adrenaline and even shares a bit of passion.
This "Swan Lake" is finished off in 2 CD's and that's another issue of this recording. We all know this is not a ballet performance, but the way Pletnev treats some of the dansante numbers is verging on caricature. In what seems to be a different and now definitely forgotten era conductors from the Russian school used to mould and reinvigorate scores with an innate and often dazzling use of rubato. Pletnev, on the other hand, only distinguishes draggingly slow and very fast. His tempi changes are haphazard, while several of the allegro sections are taken in a breakneck presto, with often comical results (coda of Act 1 Pas de trois, coda of Act 3 Pas de six) - remember Tom & Jerry, maestro? Like in his recording of "The Sleeping Beauty" it's not a mere question of slow and fast, it's the way how these tempi are handled.
As we know from earlier recordings the Russian National Orchestra is not without merit, yet neither the conducting nor the recording helps them much. Pleasantly dynamic but also dry, the forwardly balanced strings and woodwinds tend to sounds shrill in tutti. In fact, this recording is well attuned to Pletnev's approach: cold, clinical, unatmospheric, and ultimately brittle. As said, I never thought of "Swan Lake" as dull music, but Pletnev made me change my mind.
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Pletnev remains one of classical music's great enigmas. In his Amazon.com review of Pletnev's set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, David Hurwitz states: "As a pianist he's willful, rhapsodic, eccentric, but full of ideas and never boring. As a conductor he's metronomic, reserved, inhibited, and simply unable to impress any interpretive character on the music." I must say that I largely concur with this assessment, for while I consider Pletnev to be one of the greatest living pianists, I've been largely disappointed and perplexed by his conducting. The only exceptions that I've encountered have interestingly been mostly of non-Russian music. I found his Beethoven symphony cycle to be imaginative and provocative, and his Weber disc of the Konzertstuck and Overtures to be very rewarding as well. But apart from his recording of Sleeping Beauty, which is not bad, I've found Pletvev's recordings of Russian music to be uniformly awful.
This recording of Swan Lake, while not the total disaster of the symphonies, is not on the level of Sleeping Beauty either. Part of the problem has to do with the sound, which is dull, flat and lacking in detail. The recording venue is the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the same as in his his earlier DGG recordings, so the blame must lie with Ondine's engineering. I'm not sure what precipitated Pletnev's move to Ondine, but this does not bode well for future recordings.
As for the performance itself, there are some interesting (and often hilarious) tempo choices and there are times when Pletnev's penchant for fast tempos pays off, as in the tiresome sequential repetitions near the start off Act 2, where Tchaikovsky regresses into automatic pilot mode. Some of the transitional passages elsewhere are also handled well, but within the individual numbers themselves, Pletnev generally regresses into his own brand of automatic pilot mode. In vain does one listen for the imaginative shaping and unexpected highlighting and coloring that characterize his piano playing, and which keeps one on the edge of one's seat; here one is at best kept on the edge of sleep. As I sat through this recording, I couldn't help thinking that if Pletnev were to make a piano transcription of Swan Lake excerpts (as he has with Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker), his playing of them would possess all of those qualities so sorely lacking here. And that's the ultimate irony; Pletnev has proven repeatedly that he is able to obtain infinitely more variety and color from a keyboard than he can from an orchestra. Any number of recordings of Swan Lake that I've heard, including Tilson Thomas, Bonynge, and Svetlanov, are preferable to this, both in terms of performance and recorded sound. I've never been sold on the Russian National Orchestra, either. The orchestra possesses virtuosity of execution but is short on tonal quality, at least under Pletnev.
Pletnev's most recent piano recording (with orchestra) was the Emperor Concerto from 2008; his most recent solo piano recording was a disc of Mozart sonatas dating from 2005. It would seem that playing the piano is becoming less and less important to Pletnev, at least as far as recording is concerned. If this observation is correct, it's a shame, for while he is generally at best a mediocre conductor, as a pianist he is a true recreative genius, and in my opinion that's where his energies should be directed.
One small but puzzling question: why is the final reprise of the Valse in Act 2 played in A-flat, as opposed to the A Major of previous appearances? I assume Pletnev did this to effect a smoother tonal transition from the E-flat of the previous number. My memory of all other recordings I've heard is that this is in A Major as well. I don't have ready access to a score; does anyone have any insight on this?
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Formato: CD de audio
I have the following performances of the complete Sleeping Beauty :
Bonynge and the National Phil on Decca, ADD,1981;
Dorati and the Concertgebouw on Phillips, ADD, 1979-1981; and
Lanchbery and the Philharmonia on EMI,DDD,1981.
I got the Dorati first. His tempi tend to be brisk, and even
in pieces where he follows standard tempi, he often accelerates
toward a final triumphant chord. With Dorati, I get a performance
that is about as clean and unmannered as it's possible to be, so
I tend to use him as a benchmark in rating other recordings.
This doesn't mean he alwayscomes out on top, but if I can,
I start with him.
After Dorati, Lanchbery sounds relaxed; but I think Lanchbery
follows standard tempi more consistently. - And, he does get
an orchestral response that is always superbly professional
and occasionally inspiring. Dorati was recorded somewhat
distantly in Amsterdam; Lanchbery had the advantage of Abbey
Road Studios in London, and the sound is admirably clear, and warmer.
Bonynge was recorded in Kingsway Hall, and while I can just detect
some kind of slight difference from Abbey Road, the sound to my ear
is just as clear and warm. Bonynge is, for me, another case entirely.
His tempi are not noticeably faster than Lanchbery's overall,
but the atmosphere of his recording seems more passionate and joyful -
from which I infer he is very good at communicating with the orchestra.
Which brings me to Pletnev and the Russian National, DG,DDD, 1997.
The Moscow recording by DGG is as clear as the London recordings,
but not as warm. The conductor's tempi are on the brisk side,
and occasionally fast enough that I was sure the conductor was
trying to make it thrilling, and what I felt instead was rushed.
There are also one or two pieces that are taken slowly enough to
feel not just mannered but wayward. This is because Pletnev
establishes a precedent of briskness immediately, and maintains
it for quite some time, so that when he suddenly introduces a
piece at such a slower tempo, it feels as though it has been
taken from a different performance entirely.
That said, the orchestra is pretty amazing. There are note
combinations, ornaments, and phrases which the conductor takes
at such a breathtaking pace that I was sure they'd never bring
them off, then they did, and I sat there shaking my head, stunned.
So recommended, but with reservations.