Whilst at first sight this programme
appeared to be a bit hackneyed, consisting as it did of well-known favourites,
the combination of the idiosyncratic Russian conductor Alexander Lazarev
and his compatriot pianist, the volatile Mikhail Pletnev, turned it
into an evening of inspired music making.
Lazarev opened the proceedings
with an elegant performance of Hector Berliozís Overture, Le Corsaire,
Op.21. Far from sounding like a bashed-out showpiece for orchestra,
the conductorís reading was measured and refined, marrying lyricism
with drama, with orchestral textures perfectly balanced and beautifully
transparent, and wonderfully incisive punctuating trombones in the closing
Before Mikhail Pletnev sat down
he gave his piano stool a puzzled stare, then took out his handkerchief
to wipe something off it, much to the amusement of a packed house. Fastidious
comedy moment over, Pletnev switched mood, wearing a face of stern concentration
as he prepared for Chopinís Piano Concerto No.1.
The first twenty-minute movement
can often sound fragmented and heavy-textured, but under Lazarevís sensitive
hands the music flowed effortlessly, with the Philharmonia playing with
a chamber-like clarity. Pletnevís highly concentrated playing had great
finesse and agility, floating his phrases with great lightness of touch
and endowing the notes with a sparkling quality in the lyrical passages.
His dreamy Larghetto suggested
the image of shooting stars as he flicked his wrists, seemingly throwing
the notes into the air like gold dust. His sounds had a fragile, almost
vulnerable quality, the movement ending on a solitary sublime note.
Pletnev shifted mood in the Rondo playing with great brio and
humour, aided and abetted by vigorous support from conductor and orchestra.
Pletnev and Lazarev were an ideal match, each keeping a watchful eye
on the other throughout this inspired performance which had the house
Under Lazarevís vigorous direction,
Tchaikovskyís Fourth Symphony was given a totally exhilarating, white-knuckle
ride performance. For those who attended the polite and smooth-textured
account of this symphony under Zubin Mehta with the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra at the RFH last year Lazarevís reading would have seemed rough
However, this is not to say that
Lazarevís account was undisciplined - far from it. Whereas Mehtaís was
well-mannered and highly polished, it lacked the raw energy and essential
manic quality that Lazarev brought to the work This was a great Russian
conductor teaching an English orchestra to play with Russian passion.
Conducting without a baton, he launched his forces into the Andante
sostenuto even before the audience had settled down. His wild balletic
gestures encouraged the Philharmonia to play with great intensity and
bravura. In the reflective lyrical passages he held the strings in check
making them play incredibly quietly allowing the poetically played woodwinds
to be clearly heard. The Philharmonia were inspired to play with great
feeling, but always perfectly controlled in this knife-edged reading.
After this tempestuous start,
things calmed down with the Andantino, again played with great
warmth and passion, with the strings being subtly subdued to allow some
exquisite woodwind solos to shine through. The Scherzo was given
a tougher performance than one normally hears, with pizzicato strings
interrupted by capricious arabesques from the pointed woodwind; notably
inspired was the piercing piccolo playing of Keith Bragg.
Lazarez increased the temperature
in the Finale with the Philharmonia playing with feverish intensity,
with powerful brass and percussion playing. As we got to the closing
passages the orchestra seemed to be at boiling point, with the conductor
leaping into the air to finish off the symphony, landing triumphantly
facing the delighted audience.
Not since Bernstein have I seen
such over-the-top conducting, but Lazarezís gestures were totally in
the service of the score, and he surely got to the heart of Tchaikovskyís
highly charged music. This was an evening of real music making
with soloist, conductor and orchestra performing with superhuman energy
to give us a truly memorable concert.