No one was better placed to introduce the West to the Russian way with Tchaikovsky than Mikhail Pletnev. Besides being an eminent pianist, he became a cultural hero by founding a private orchestra, the Russian National, when government subsidies were collapsing after the fall of the Soviet Union. Western critics were hugely predisposed in is favor, but as things turned out, Pletnev wanted to deliver almost the opposite of Russian (i.e., Soviet) interpretations, aiming instead for a surface polish and poise that was much more reminiscent of the "internationalized" readings that were already standard fare. His DG cycle of the complete symphonies made no lasting impression, and now he has returned with essentially the same sleek style.
At least we have a clear-cut choice, given that other post-Soviet conductors vigorously define their readings as Russian - bold, emotionally wrought, intense, and colorful. Gergiev wound up setting the gold standard, but until next month we won't know what he has to say about the first three symphonies. That gives an opening for this beautifully recorded "Little Russian" Sym. to make an impression - and it does. (I listened in the usual two-channel stereo, not SACD.) Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies are problematic. They often seem more like ballet suites than anything else, and since he was a genius at ballet music, forcing these scores to live up to stricter standards of sonata form, development, and tight organization feels beside the point.
If you love the melodies first and foremost, here they are played gorgeously and rather gently for the first three movements. Tempos are lively; there's no attempt to make the music more important than t actually is. Pletnev focuses on charm, and a great deal is charming in the Tchaikovsky Second. the flowing first movement is lovely, despite its lack of attack. The second movement feels a bit genteel but as ballet music could hardly be prettier. The Scherzo is marked "very lively" (Molto vivace), which Pletnev overrides for a moderate pace, but it sparkles brightly. The finale, which begins with a stately processional that could easily be used as the entry for the king and queen in Sleeping Beauty, is done with suitable majesty, and the main Allegro vivo is quick on its feet and played with impressive precision.
There are few readings that solve all the problems of the "Little Russian" - we'll see if Gergiev has found the magic key - and since my favorite version, form Giulini on EMI, is decades old and in flawed sound, Pletnev's elegance scores well, at least as well as the usual recommendations like Dorati and Markevitch.
It's nice to have an unusual filler, the long, unpruned first movement as Tchaikovsky first wrote it. The familiar themes and orchestration remain the same, but four minutes in we begin to get a new, clipped syncopated theme, followed by a lyrical interlude that introduces more new material. This music isn't second rate, but it wanders and feels disconnected from the folk tune for solo horn that begins the movement. One can see why Tchaikovsky wanted to retain only the best parts of his original conception.