As PLetnev's Rachmaninov cycle emerged in the Nineties, Western listeners were amazed that decades of coarse orchestral playing under the Soviets (with some notable exceptions, of course) suddenly gave way to a smooth, viruosic Russian National Orch. that could compete on a very high level internationally. Just as remarkably, Melodiya's good-enough stereo sound was replaced by the sleek, up-to-date sonics heard on this Rachmaninov Sym. 1 -- it is visceral and powerful. Good-sounding versions from Decca (Ashkenazy) and EMI (Jansons) were easily eclipsed. No wonder that this recording earned a Pelican Guide rosette.
Until a considerably better conductor enters the field -- meaning Gergiev, Vladimir Jurowski, or Vasily Petrenko -- the skillful leadership of Pletnev will do very well. To compensate for the sprawl of Rachmaninov's first symmphonic score, his solution is elegance and refined, supple phrasing. Those qualities don't quite solve the puzzle of tis score, which needs fiery commitment, I think, and a willingness to take risks. You can hear the difference if you take the first item on the program, The Isle of the Dead, and set Pletnev's way beside Petrenko or Jurowsky. He is strong, balanced, and restrained, but they tell a more dramatic story, leading grimly and inexorably to a huge emotional climax. PLetnev is altogether cooler and more controlled.
The same holds in the symphony, where the initial grinding chords in the cellos and basses are smoothed out so that they are not so crude or wrenching. The Scherzo is marked "animato," which Pletnev turns into light-footed fairy-tale gossamer. He resists the darker side of the music, and so there is little menacing tension when the grim motto that began the work returns. Even so, the dreamy Larghetto reminds us of how unusually beautiful and refined tis whole reading is. The emergence of Russian conductors as advocates for a forgotten symphony has been a revelation. The brazen fanfares that begin the finale could have sent an army into battle under Svetlanov; here we are at a royal pageant decorated with mock combat. I miss the galloping excitement of Jansons on EMI, still my favorite overall reading; Ashkenazy is also particularly strong.
But as a document of Russian orchestra leaping into the international spotlight with totally idiomatic readings of their music, this is an outstanding release.