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S & H Festival Review

Pletnev’s Rachmaninov Concerto Cycle in London: Marc Bridle and Alex Russell are impressed by the great pianist in concert.

Sokhiev & Pletnev in concert, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 16th & 20th November 2003 (MB)


These two concerts, part of a series of four in which Mikhael Pletnev performed all of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, were exemplary events. Only last year, Evgeny Kissin cancelled a concert with this same orchestra when the scheduled conductor, Emmanuel Krivine, pulled out; the replacement was the young Russian conductor
Tugan Sokhiev, with whom Mr Kissin believed he could not perform the scheduled concerto (Prokofiev’s Second). Hearing Mr Pletnev’s performances of Rachmaninov’s First and Third piano concertos with Mr Sokhiev, however, one is left questioning the great pianist’s judgment. In both cases Mr Sokhiev produced for his star soloist accompaniments of unusual depth and understanding. Indeed, in the case of Rachmaninov’s Third I don’t think I have ever heard a better orchestral and pianistic partnership in the concert hall. And in Mr Pletnev’s performance of the Third I don’t think I have ever heard a finer performance of this masterpiece. For 50 minutes an often spellbound, capacity audience were caught on the wings of greatness.

Mikhael Pletnev is a pianist it is easy to admire but difficult to love. Too often it seems as if he’d rather be somewhere else. The deliberately mannered way he ponderously walks to the piano, the frequent gazing into the audience, and the expressionless emotions all suggest a pianist who just seems bored. I have often found his pianism uninvolving – even non-interventionist - for these very reasons and he has never been an electrifying artist in the way that, say, Martha Argerich is. Both have incandescent techniques – utterly effortless, in fact, in the Third - but it has always been Argerich who has put that technique to more visionary artistic effect. And Pletnev’s technique – for all its fabled perfectionism – and at least at these two concerts - displayed a tendency towards the mortal.

Problems surprisingly surfaced in his performance of the First – a poorly spread octave in the final movement, for example, some slipped fingers elsewhere – although he felt more comfortable in the often extreme demands of the Third and it showed. Perhaps the First was more understated than it should have been, the very youthfulness of this work eluding Pletnev. Some of his rubato was less than convincing too – the second movement really did seem ponderous – but Pletnev and conductor seemed at one in trying to convey the essential Romanticism that partly influences this piece. The lyrical string passage of the Finale matched in many ways the lustrous warmth that Pletnev himself brought to the keyboard writing.

The Third was in a different league. A concerto that can often seem over-long, it has claimed many victims in both the concert hall and on disc. Pletnev himself is one of them – his recent DG recording really lacks drive - yet this performance with the Philharmonia was little short of revelatory. Masculinity went hand-in-hand with profoundly lyrical keyboard projection, and whilst one may regret his decision to have cut 8 bars from the final movement, one was also aware of an almost limitless technical ability to drive the movement towards an incandescently propelled conclusion. Despite highly individual rubato – some might actually describe it as perverse – it was a gripping journey taking in calamitous left hand octaves (controlled beautifully from the pedal) and right handed top notes that had a fierce, nailed-down precision (not always this pianist’s most notable achievement). Yet, with his wide dynamic range he gave this concerto a greater sense of both acoustic and space than we are usually entitled to hear. The very spaciousness he gave to the middle section of the final movement risked stasis but in Pletnev’s hands it seemed not a second too long; and if he took the coda faster than is normal it seemed not acutely mannered but a natural juxtaposition to his long term view of the movement.

In both concertos Mr Sokhiev and the Philharmonia Orchestra provided warm, detailed playing – something which would be heard to far greater effect in the big pieces that provided the second-half action to these concerts.

One of the most notable features of Mr Sokhiev’s conducting last October was the way in which he made the Philharmonia sound so rich of tone – and not just in the string section. As one colleague has pointed out the sound was reminiscent of that which Karajan produced with this orchestra in the 1950s. I feel more inclined to compare him with a younger Cantelli or a younger Mravinsky, both of whom he resembles. With Cantelli there is that concern for detail that emerges so effortlessly from within the orchestra (not a surprise given that Mr Sokhiev is currently Music Director of Welsh National Opera) but there is also that precision given to ensemble and that search for dark, sonorous orchestral projection that marked out Mravinsky’s concerts and recordings.

The first concert had Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony to follow Pletnev - a work which Mr Sokhiev has now conducted a number of times with this orchestra. If it did not equal the miraculous performance I heard last year with Andre Previn and the London Symphony orchestra it came very close to it. Whilst Previn’s interpretation has broadened significantly over the years Mr Sokhiev’s is still one of a youthful conductor, at moments highly charged at others introspective, but not languorously so. There were many beautiful things in it – the wonderful clarinet solo in the third movement, the deeply articulated bass line that haunts both the opening and closing movements, the splendidly controlled brass and woodwind which were controlled with brilliant dynamic range.

But there was also a sweeping, gestural line from first note to last which suggested a singular vision of the work. It was a notable performance and one which produced magnificent playing from the orchestra.

More controversial was the piece which concluded the second concert, excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There was no question that this too was a beautifully played performance but there was also no question that it lacked impact because of the incoherence given over to the positioning of the numbers. With the first five pieces coming from the Second Suite – and even then not in chronological order – we ended with two numbers taken from the First Suite. It is easy to see why Mr Sokhiev placed ‘The Death of Tybalt’ at the end – and it was given a rousing, dashing performance – but after the emotional gravity of ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Grave’ it appeared an act of destruction that left this reviewer reeling and the orchestra unable to change mood satisfactorily.

Despite this reservation – and it is a big one – Mr Sokhiev impressed with his clearly articulated beat and clarity of dynamics. ‘Montagues and Capulets’ had opened with thrilling brass ascents and crushing percussion – all breathlessly controlled – and ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ had been played with exultant passion by the Philharmonia strings. The ‘Dance of the knights’ was intoned deeply – perhaps even over-heavily - but perhaps lacked that last ounce of excitement needed to lift the piece beyond its fame. And that in itself might be a valid criticism of much of this performance – too often Mr Sokhiev’s control over his forces – and it was exemplary – seemed too well stage-managed, the performance not ultimately the dramatic experience it can be at the ballet.

Yet it does not detract from the fact that Tugan Sokhiev remains an exciting young conductor. Perhaps the Philharmonia Orchestra – who have a well-deserved reputation for discovering new talents – should encourage Mr Sokhiev to conduct a concert of non-Russian music. We might then be able to determine whether that excitement translates into greatness.

Marc Bridle



Lazarev and Pletnev in concert, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 25th & 27th November 2003 (AR)

This was the third part of the Rachamninov concerto cycle currently played by Mikhail Pletnev with conductors Tugan Sokhiev and Alexander Lazarev.

The concert opened with a sparking account Glinka’s  Overture, A Life for the Tsar. The Philharmonia Orchestra were on top form and played this party piece with a crisp alertness, the conductor using a wide dynamic range to bring great panache and theatricality to this otherwise rather trite, cliché ridden score.

While Mikhail Pletnev and Alexander Lazarev are of a highly volatile temperament there was no clash of egos in their ‘mutually inclusive’ performance of Rachmaninov’s G minor concerto. One could not help but notice extremes in their personae: Lazarev coming across as wild and hot blooded, whereas Pletnev had a stern and stony aura about him, with an hypnotic stare strikingly reminiscent of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.

Throughout, both pianist and conductor kept a watchful eye on one another, and this paid dividends producing a perfectly balanced integration between piano and orchestra where neither submerged the other. What could not save this performance was the composer’s lack-lustre writing for the orchestral parts which did not have the hauntingly melodic lushness of the second concerto and tremendous crescendos of the third.

But, Pletnev’s highly intense and concentrated playing of the first movement had a chilling directness about it. His stern, harsh tone and dark palette had an hypnotic effect on the packed house. The central movement Pletnev played with a distilled intensity and brooding detachment which made each note even more poignant, producing great clarity by the very sparseness of tone. The Finale Pletnev played with a percussive bite and an appropriately brittle tone, perfectly blending with the percussion - and there were some wonderfully judged interchanges between the soloist and timpanist, Andrew Smith.

The concert concluded with a spellbinding and extraordinarily subtle performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Op.35. Often this piece is vulgarised and sensationalised to show off an orchestra’s virtuosity, but this seductive score is much more than a mere showpiece as this conductor amply proved. Under Lazarev’s sensitive but highly expressive baton the music glowed like sparkling rainbows of light shining through a faceted prism.

The conductor’s brisk tempi were perfectly judged, integrating the four sections into a symphonic whole and never allowing the music to sag.

The Philharmonia played superbly with impeccable refinement and sensitivity, often sounding like a chamber ensemble producing such transparent, delicate textures.

Outstanding throughout was Concert Master James Clarke whose sweetly plangent violin solos had a vulnerable nervous edge to them, which contrasted perfectly with the dark grainy tone of Principle Cellist David Watkins. Andrew Smith’s intense timpani playing was exemplary, bringing out a razor sharp clarity not often heard in this work. A word of praise also has to go to Lucy Wakeford’s harp playing, especially in the opening of Story of the Kalandar Prince where she blended beautifully with Clarke’s solos.

In The Young Prince and The Young Princess the full-blooded Philharmonia strings were warm and weighty producing sensuous sounds, elegantly phrased by the conductor who moulded their phrasing with his expressive outstretched hands. The Festival at Baghdad, often played with brute force, here had Lazrev and the percussion both radiant and transparent allowing the rest of the orchestra to shine through.

The last concert began with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. This extrovert and flamboyant music was tailor-made for Alexander Lazarev who conducted, baton free, with his entire body, and seemed on the verge of flying as he coaxed the Philharmonia to play with drama and verve. So hot blooded was this exhilarating music-making one simply wanted to hear the entire ballet score.

The pivotal point of the evening was a riveting performance of Rachmaninov’s popular Second Piano Concerto. Making this over- played war-horse sound new is almost, one would imagine, impossible, yet Pletnev’s genius was to make the sore sound fresh and stripped of its usual sentimental and romantic associations. The opening chords were dark and brooding, and set the mood for this somewhat unnerving performance. Pletnev’s palette ranged widely lending it a bleakness and unsettling mood not often heard in the work.

The first movement Pletnev played with intense concentration, with a risk- taking edginess, but what made this performance so memorable was the central movement where Pletnev played with a paradoxical, illuminating darkness, producing a wide dynamic range. This was unnervingly solemn, without ever descending into sentimentality. What let the soloist down was some rather unfocused and recessed woodwind solos. Pletnev played the last movement with a cool but powerful reserve, just slightly holding back to increase the tension and intensity.

Alexander Scirabin’s Third Symphony - The Divine Poem is both underrated and underplayed and it was an exhilarating experience to hear it under Lazarev’s expressive and energising direction. The focal point of this performance was the intense braying of the horns, penetrating trumpets and rasping trombones.

This would have been a paradigm performance if it were not for the strings being so etiolated, never attaining the essential weight and toughness required of them. The strings should have a surging, savage stridency which never truly ignited here. This lack of body broke the flow of the music and tension. I suspect it may have been restricted rehearsal time as the strings in the concerto had great presence and weight.

Throughout Lazarev’s tempi were exacting and he instinctively registered the music’s sense of organic growth and structure, making the music flow seamlessly. The drawn out closing passages had extra tension with many in the audience applauding prematurely, before the final timpani thwacks. But it was an exhilarating ending to an evening of inspired music making.

Alex Russell






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