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PLETNEV SERVES UP AN EXCITING `PATHETIQUE'

When I welcomed pianist Mikhail Pletnev's CDs of the Tchaikovsky piano concertos in these pages a year ago, I scarcely dreamed he would follow them with something like this, namely one of the finest recordings of that same composer's "Pathetique" Symphony the catalog has to offer.

In that, he follows his compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy in turning from the keyboard to the podium with an account of this, the greatest of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, that brings out nearly all its Russian fire.What's more, its Slavic temperament is evident from the first, as the mercurial introduction gives way to a yieldingly aromatic main theme, then to a breathtakingly incisive development. After which the 5/4 Allegro con grazia may not plumb the depths but the excitement is quickly rekindled in a blazingly volatile march-scherzo, followed by the tragic resignation of the Finale.

The result is an interpretation I would class with the best of its kind - those being, in addition to Ashkenazy's, Jansons, Mravinsky and Markevitch - even if some of them do get a bit more beneath the music's surface. But no one, not even Leonard Bernstein, seems more personally involved with its drama. Just listen to the way the yearning climax of the first movement - here strongly underlined by the low brass - seems almost torn from the orchestra. Or the mounting tension and release of that last movement, its heartache subsiding but never really dying.

By contrast Eliahu Inbal's Denon recording, a followup to his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, regularly fails to ignite. Occasionally the inwardness and expanse bring out the darkness I so admired in his Fifth, and which one would have thought even more appropriate here. But often things are almost too carefully enunciated, the march-scherzo seeming downright cautious in places and the Finale comparatively devoid of inner conflict.

On the other hand the "Tristan" encore strikes me as well chosen, though most Tchaikovskians would probably opt for Pletnev's similarly impassioned "Marche Slave."

The RCA issue is more problematic. First, few conductors known to me are more overdue for renewed attention in the CD era than Serge Koussevitzky, who built the Boston Symphony into what is still one of the world's great orchestras. Next, there are few composers in whose music he seemed more at home than that of Tchaikovsky. Finally this is far and away the finest-sounding incarnation I have ever heard of his 1930 "Pathetique," the hashiness and tubbiness of the original 78s having been almost completely done away with.

That said, however, it must also be noted that this is possibly Koussevitzky's least successful Tchaikovsky recording, certainly not on the level of his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies or the accompanying "Romeo and Juliet," coming across as a little coarse, even heavy in places, and for once a little too broad in its mannerisms.

At the same time the third movement in his hands still churns up a fair measure of excitement, and if enough people buy this CD maybe BMG will give us some of the really great Koussevitzy recordings, like his Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony, Mendelssohn "Italian" and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe," still the finest realizations of those pieces I have ever heard.