Harrods International Piano Series 2001/2002 – 5th March

Pictures at an Exhibition
Music from The Sleeping Beauty

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 5 March, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Do pianists who turn into conductors become weary of solo performance? Is the unwonted thrill of being able to convey shades of emotion simply by an abstracted communication of gesture something that makes the mechanical action of the piano pall? Certainly, a number of pianists who turn to conducting (one thinks especially of Ashkenazy and Barenboim) grab the new vocation with both hands and come close to abandoning the old. Is the same true of Pletnev?

Mussorgsky’s Pictures is a piece dear to the hearts of Russian pianists. Its combination of folk themes and stylistic innovations, its graphic descriptiveness, its constant inventiveness made both Richter and Ashkenazy write of it as the greatest single work in nineteenth-century Russian piano literature. Ashkenazy contributed especially affectionate notes to the only recommendable edition of the work. This advocacy, which Pletnev clearly shares, serves to remind us that the work is not a curiosity brought to fruition for Western ears by Ravel’s orchestration. It is a profound commentary on the balance between complex intellect and simple passion in the Russian soul. All performances of Pictures in Mussorgsky’s original version lie in the shadow of Richter’s 1958 Sofia recital, whose rightness and élan has never been equalled.

I remember a much-lauded recording by Pletnev of precisely this programme (Virgin). Its slow tempi and laboured character in comparison with the Richter made its excellent reception mysterious to me. So it was with this live performance. Certainly, the ’Promenade’ and ’The Old Castle’ had the pace and spring appropriate to live performance, but they remained essentially leaden, neither exploratory nor hypnotic.Moreover, what might make excellent programming for a CD was indigestible as a recital.

For originality, Pletnev was inclined to substitute waywardness – as in ’Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’.Some idiosyncrasies worked well for me – the very soft chorale in the ’The Great Gate at Kiev’ emerging in dissonance by leaving the previous chords resonating with the middle pedal seemed to me to epitomise the very contrasts in the piece as a whole, but, overall, I looked for more consistency and less petulant detail. The Pictures which rely on discontinuity, uncertainty and contrast – the two Polish Jews, ’Goldenberg and Schmuyle’, ’Catacombs’, the “language of the dead” fared better. Those that can be tossed off in a perfunctory fashion – ’Limoges’ or the excessively stylised ’Tuileries’, and surprisingly, the ’Baba Yaga’s Hut on Fowls’ Legs’, fared worse. Above all, I missed exactly what Richter did so well – the sense of ineluctable forward motion within each Picture and from one to the next.

It might be argued that a solo recital in the Royal Festival Hall was appropriately devoted to such ’orchestral’ pieces.Paradoxically, I disagree. The scale of the hall meant that the piano sound seemed limited in comparison to that of the orchestra one would expect to play these pieces – a smaller venue would have given Pletnev more scope in terms of conveying a sense of drama and the sublime. Instead, the Mussorgsky failed to have the independent identity and intimacy that it should, and one simply wondered why Pletnev had bothered to make the Tchaikovsky transcription; he hardly needs it as a vehicle for his own pianism, and it pales in comparison to the colours of the original.

The Tchaikovsky, then, included the wonderfully fleet ’Danse des Pages’, the graceful ’La Fee-Argent’, and the sprightliness of the ’Gavotte’. The puzzle is what this transcription adds to the repertoire. This was a short recital (the Tchaikovsky under half-an-hour) but seemed to be much longer.

There is no doubt that Pletnev is an extraordinary technician. The Pictures are awkwardly written for the hands, but never seemed so in his performance. Pletnev can play faster than most, and he can melt hearts with his pianissimo (as he showed in his Chopin encore). But there is an enormous difference between wilfulness and true originality. Like Grigory Sokolov, his Russian predecessor in this series, Pletnev made shameless use of the cult of personality, dimming the house lights completely and making a consciously controversial choice of programme. However, it was if the one, Sokolov, was an inevitable consequence of the demands of the music, whereas the other, Pletnev, had consciously orchestrated a ’mise en scene’ to replace the missing instruments. So it was that one recital was a triumphantly eccentric success and the other a predictably problematic conundrum.

  • The next Harrods recital is given by Mihaela Ursuleasa on Sunday, 17 March, at 7.45 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk

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