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S & H Concert Review

Tchaikovsky, Boris Berezovsky (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Mikhael Pletnev, Royal Festival Hall, 7th November 2002 (AR)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite - Excerpts:
Arabian Dance
Chinese Dance
Russian Dance
Waltz of the Flowers
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1
TCHAIKOVSKY: Orchestral Suite No. 3

From the outset, Mikhail Pletnev’s painfully slow progress towards the podium presaged his conducting for the entire evening: it was mannered and contrived. Pletnev gave the impression of acting at conducting, and his whole performance seemed to be directed more at the audience than the orchestra. Throughout, his gestures ranged from sloppy to wilful to downright arbitrary.

The originally scheduled three excerpts from the incidental music to Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden was replaced by a Suite from The Nutcracker. Pletnev’s conducting was largely rhythmically slack and sluggish, making this music sound anything but balletic. He neither understood the lilt of the music nor its tempi, which were frequently erratic. None of Tchaikovsky’s vivacity and joie de vivre was present and I never imagined I would find this delicious music sound so dull and lumpen. Instead of giving the orchestra their head, he jerked them back with a choke chain. I doubt whether any dancer would even recognise this as the Nutcracker, let alone be able to dance to it. The Philharmonia Orchestra just seemed cowed by their conductor’s approach to it.

Boris Berezovsky

Things took a turn for the better with the second offering - Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. Boris Berezovsky was born and trained in Moscow, winning the prestigious Gold Medal at the 1990 International Tchaikovsky Competition, and his playing of this popular concerto was sufficiently idiosyncratic to give this old War Horse new life.

His playing of the first movement Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso alternated between manic attack and a delicate evanescence where the notes melted into nothingness. Indeed, sometimes his playing was barely audible and seemed on several occasions to have come to a halt. This risky interpretation seemed to generate a nervous tension in the hall, making an appreciative audience even more attentive.

In the Adantino semplice Berezovsky took even greater risks, producing further extremes in sound and dynamics. However, his masterly technique and quicksilver finger work were let down somewhat by a sour sounding ‘cello solo and very poor horn intonation. Again, Pletnev’s conducting was painfully mannered.

The Allegro con fuoco produced some wonderful dialogue between pianist and woodwinds. This was the most successful movement, where pianist and orchestra, and even the conductor, seemed more united. As the work progressed, the tempo became so fast and furious it seemed like a race to see who would finish first – pianist or conductor. This, unlike the Nutcracker offering, drew enthusiastic applause.

Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3 had the Philharmonia playing with much more commitment, with notably expressive playing from the violins. The first two movements – in E minor – should sound wistful and elegiac yet be conducted with an expressive urgency and forward drive. Again Pletnev did his restraining routine, which merely broke the line of the music, seriously impeding its flow. The opening of the Elégie: Andantino molto cantabile was flat with the deep, throbbing, bass-line pulse missing, Pletnev paying scant attention to the importance of the double basses and ‘cellos.

The divine Valse Mélancolique did not have the essential sense of nostalgia and pathos, whilst the Scherzo lacked rhythmic bite and drive, the side drum sounding curiously hollow and brittle. The last movement, Tema con 12 variazioni, was again pulled about by Pletnev’s messy and wilful conducting. In Variation Seven – allegro vivace – the contribution of the violas and ‘cellos was barely audible with both lacking body and attack. What saved this performance from anarchy was the Seventh Variation with a brief ‘chorale’ interlude for woodwind: here the Philharmonia woodwind were in their element, producing exquisite playing of the highest order. This was matched by the melancholic largo for cor anglais in Variation 8, which was beautifully done.

Between Variation 9 and Variation 10 we were treated to a cadenza for solo violin, evocatively played by orchestra Leader Maya Iwabuchi – an international soloist of great distinction. She gave the music the essential rhythmic bite so lacking in Pletnev’s conducting. The Finale – a Polonaise – was crudely rushed through, negating the celebratory, triumphant grandeur, with the brass and some members of the percussion section sounding bland and lacking focus: Peter Fry on the cymbals had zero impact while the bass drum seemed too uninvolved. Only timpanist Andrew Smith played with his customary cutting edge.

Despite some wonderful woodwind playing throughout the evening, the Philharmonia were let down (and held back) by very bad conducting. Pletnev on occasion had this irritating and affected habit of not conducting at all - just standing there: he never established a steady beat and had little sense of the structure, line or metre in any of the three works.

In the programme notes Pletnev is described as a "pianist, conductor and composer". On the strength of this concert, and if he has other strings to his bow, he should concentrate on those; conducting is certainly not his forte. This concert was a depressing experience: great scores sabotaged by a bad conductor.

Alex Russell

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