Pletnev himself had been caught up in trans-Atlantic events. He was an hour away on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow, destination New York, where he was due to participate in the Lincoln Centers Rachmaninov series with the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The Orchestra had already been turned back at Heathrow; Pletnevs flight was diverted to Newfoundland where he spent four days until the all-clear was given to return to Moscow. Consequently his additional engagement with the Cleveland Orchestra was impossible to honour and thus Pletnev was free for London. (For those interested, the Lincoln Center, the Philharmonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy and tour organisers, Harrison Parrott, are hopeful that the New York Rachmaninov concerts can be rearranged for this forthcoming January.)
Miraculously, the Philharmonias opening programme remained virtually intact. The only casualty was Mussorgskys original version of Night on a Bare Mountain (I am guessing that Pletnev would favour Rimsky-Korsakovs cleaned-up rewrite) which was replaced by Beethovens Coriolan Overture. Somewhat heavy-handed in his approach, Pletnev replaced inspiration with a rather dogged literalism.
The biography sheet handed out with the programme informed that Nikolaï Lugansky had performed with Pletnev as conductor before. Im not really sure it showed in this performance. Lugansky is a clear and unfussy player, but there was little meaning behind his precise placement of fingers on keys. On Pletnevs part, he was simply at pains to provide an accompaniment, not to mould a cohesive whole.It was a case of two halves resolutely refusing to come together; that said this was a rescue package and not a long-planned performance. As it did not completely hold my attention, I was even more aware of the dichotomy between the Philharmonias strings (particularly the first violins) and the Leader or Concert Master as the Philharmonia now has it Christopher Warren-Green. When at the end of a phrase the rest of the violins keep their bows in the air, he immediately puts his bow-hand down on his knee, which does not befit an orchestra of world-class quality. I have been put off by his antics in the past.
Thankfully all such thoughts were subsumed by a wonderful performance of Sibeliuss Second Symphony. This was, in at least two senses, indulgent it was quite slow (about five minutes longer than the average 43 minutes indicated in the programme) and had a distinctive Russian aspect in both Pletnevs interpretation and the sounds he conjured from the musicians, such as the fruitiness and sense of abandon from both horns and trumpets, and individual, rounded wind solos. Im not sure what Sibelius would have thought remember it was written at a time when Finland was trying to extricate itself from Russian overlords but there is absolutely no doubt that the music can withstand such an interpretation. I came out refreshed and rejuvenated.
- Mikhail Pletnev returns in November to play Beethovens five Piano Concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi November 4, 8 and 13
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk