Rachmaninov Orchestral Works
There are dangers in getting to know a score through the work of a single orchestra and conductor whether on disc or in the concert-hall. The more powerful the interpretation, the more it can spoil you for subsequent readings. Not that Andre Previn's celebrated, early-1970s recording of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is in any sense idiosyncratic. It is simply that, in the catalogue and out, its distinctive turns of phrase (and above all Jack Brymer's magical way with the slow movement's clarinet theme) have tended to monopolize mental maps of a once marginalized work. In putting over a quite different conception with similar conviction, Mikhail Pletnev's achievement is to make us hear the music afresh. It isn't simply a matter of timbral 'authenticity'. His is a leaner, lither, more Tchaikovskian view which the sometimes muddling resonance of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory cannot disguise—even if one might wish for a more forward woodwind placement or a cleaner bass. Where an all-Russian recording like Valery Gergiev's (Philips—to be reviewed next month) sounds solidly familiar in general outline (despite a first movement exposition repeat), Pletnev's performance is characterized by relatively discreet emotionalism, stronger forward momentum and a fanatical preoccupation with clarity of articulation. When there is no Slavic wobble, it scarcely matters that his winds display an individuality which once or twice fails to transcend mere rawness—so much the better in this music! The strings, forceful and husky (with separated violin desks) are beyond reproach.
In the early stages, I did miss Previn's dark, rhapsodic manner. Pletnev's introduction is cooler, the line less obviously inflected. On the other hand, the extraordinary delicacy of the strings skittering into play at the start of the exposition proper is a miracle of control, and, after that comparatively unassuming opening, the development is as passionate and driven as anyone could wish. Again, the relatively backward balance of the horns in the second movement may bring some feeling of disappointment, but there are amends in the wonderfully natural, unselfconscious phrasing of the big tune—no over-indulgence there. Nor is there any risk of stagnation in the now famous Adagio. Taken controversially fast, this is perfectly effective in context without quite effacing memories of Ashkenazy's warmer ebb and flow or Previn's slow-building catharsis. Pletnev's flowing tempo takes the spotlight off the non-occidentalized clarinet and is certainly in keeping with the taut ardour of his reading as a whole. The most remarkable playing comes in the finale, often bringing to mind the orchestra's staggering display in the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique on its debut release (Virgin Classics, 1/92). The lyrical effusions are superbly characterized without undermining the sense of inexorability, the climaxes not just powerful but affecting too. The closing pages bring a rush of adrenalin of the kind rarely experienced live, let alone in the studio. This is great music-making, the rubato always there when required, the long phrases immaculately tailored yet always sounding spontaneous.
DG's unexpected coupling is The Rock, an early, rather bitty piece which is however very deftly scored and intriguingly Scriabinesque in places. There are few alternative recordings in the current catalogue: Previn's (RCA, 1/68) has recently gone though Lorin Maazel's retains its place. In Pletnev's hands, the central climax is surprisingly powerful, with just a hint of the buzz-saw in the brass playing. The fabulous delicacy elsewhere is alone worth the price of admission. What with Mariss Jansons's outstanding accounts of the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances (EMI, 12/93), Rachmaninov's admirers have been well served of late. Don't expect the new disc to rival EMI's for Previn in terms of technical refinement and you won't be disappointed: these are performances of even greater temperament and fire. Perhaps DG could now give us Pletnev's uniquely dark and cogent readings of Prokofiev's Sixth or Shostakovich's Fifteenth, great Russian symphonies by no means so well represented in the lists.'