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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Sibelius and Rachmaninov: Janine Jansen (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (conductor), RFH, 6th February, 2005 (AR)

Pletnev and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert featuring works by Sibelius and Rachmaninov may very well turn out to be my concert of the year. From beginning to end, this was an evening of magical music making of the highest artistic order, and the finest accounts I have heard of either of these works.

Pletnev’s broad and mesmerising reading of Sibelius’ tone poem, The Bard, Op. 64, conjured up an uncannily chilling atmosphere, the harp glissandi starkly contrasted with the shimmering melancholic strings. The solo harp set the alien mood of the score and was played with great agility by Lucy Wakeford.

The Dutch violinist Janine Jansen is clearly an artist to watch in the future. She eschews virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake: she is too interested in interpreting the score to worry about superficialities. Her hypersensitive interpretation had a meticulous attention to detail as well as a huge dynamic and expressive range whilst avoiding the usual romantic clichés this work inspires in lesser musicians. Her radical interpretation made the Heifetz, Chung, Perlman and Vengerov readings seem romantically archaic.

In the Allegro moderato Jansen’s paradoxically rugged yet refined tone had an acidic-razor sharpness, producing a painful poignancy that often melted dangerously into nothingness: danger and risk are what mark her radical interpretation above those standardized (and over romanticized) readings. Secure intonation is not what her playing is about: rather she seeks an insecure soundscape, teasing out nuances we have never heard before. The Adagio di molto was played with a quivering intensity, producing dark and brooding tones that were stark and unsettling, giving an eerie sensation of alien agitation, so apt for this adagio. In the Allegro, ma non tanto she produced a bizarre array of hybrid sounds, from rawness to refinement, yet she remained utterly in control. Pletnev and the Philharmonia offered not merely superb support but treated the score more as a symphonic poem bringing out far more drama and weight than is usually heard in this concerto. I literally had never heard this work clearly before hearing Jansen, Pletnev and the Philharmonia perform it here - particular woodwind and timpani details I have never noticed before in concert or in recordings shone through.

Pletnev’s paradigm performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in E minor, Op. 27 is by far the greatest I have heard, even surpassing André Previn’s famous and much vaunted readings. Pletnev not only had a masterly grasp of the metre and structure of the score, but also drew out orchestral detail rarely heard before, notably, intricate writing for timpani, and exquisite woodwind detail. The darkly played deep ‘cello tone of the opening of the Largo – Allegro set the mood of the movement and marked the gravitas of the performance as a whole. Pletnev made the strings murmur and strive with a seamless flow, letting the music meander at its own pace without indulging in mannered gear shifts or distortions of dynamics. The brass departments were strongly punctuated and shone radiantly. In contrast, the Allegro molto was angular and taut, tinged with lyrical moments of melancholia. Here the percussion were incisive without ever sounding brash or over-blown.

What crowned this performance was the sublime clarinet solo of the opening of the Adagio which was played with a gut-wrenching poignancy. Pletnev took this movement at a slightly quicker pace than is customary but it never sound rushed - the conductor was wonderfully relaxed and conducted with balletic ease, often with one hand resting on the podium. Yet, this was by far the most intense, urgent and powerfully passionate performance I have ever heard of the Adagio which had the audience totally gripped in the aura of melancholic jouissance. In the closing bars of the final movement, Pletnev increased the pace and the energy, brass and timpani playing with overwhelming visceral intensity which was almost too unbearable to take in: a life affirming ending to a broodingly melancholic score.

Pletnev and the Philharmonia received ecstatic applause from a spell-bound audience: indeed, throughout the performance there was total silence – usually the hallmark of a mesmerising musical event. Two children gave Pletnev flowers: he gave one bunch to Maya Iwabuchi, the orchestra leader; the other he laid on the score.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Rachmaninov Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op. 27, The Rock – Fantasia Op. 7; Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (conductor): DGG: 439 888-2



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)