Mikhail Pletnev

The Seasons
Arabeske, Op.18
Kreisleriana, Op.16

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 10 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert did not reflect well on the Barbican management. At 7.45 (Mikhail Pletnev’s recital due to begin at 7.30), we were still waiting to be admitted to the Hall. No explanation was given for the delay, which was in fact caused by a technician working on the piano. When Pletnev finally appeared he looked very unhappy. When he started to play one could hear why. The Blüthner piano was sub-standard, with a clanging bass, hollow midrange with some strange resonance in the octave above middle C, and glassy treble. In the advert for Blüthner in the programme, Pletnev is quoted as saying: “I am convinced Blüthner pianos have an exceptionally beautiful tone…” – so you wonder how this particular instrument found itself on stage in that condition.

Despite this major drawback, Pletnev gave an object lesson in the art of interpretation and of playing the piano.

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons consists of twelve pieces named after the months. Lasting forty minutes or so, the work is rarely heard complete and its level of inspiration and invention is not stellar – the enormous genius of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral and operatic music is not to be found in his chamber and instrumental works. The opening ‘January’ is marked ‘moderato semplice, ma espressivo’. Pletnev’s tempo was more andante, but the dynamic nuancing was exceptional, as was the limpid phrasing. In the toccata-like ‘February’ the rhythmic inflections were subtle and totally calculated, while still sounding spontaneous. In ‘May’ the slow-fast-slow structure brought sweetness of tone, dynamic shading and entirely natural rubato; the final chord was used to link to the next piece and here the sense of quiet melancholy was beautifully conveyed. (Bizarrely the atmosphere of the piece was compromised by the sound of some idiot snoring in the Circle and throughout the concert there were numerous outbursts of coughing and programme rustling!) August brought total control at speed with the trio exquisitely voiced and the last piece – a waltz – again brought absolute control of every aspect of piano technique. I can’t imagine The Seasons being done better, even if in the few small faster pieces Pletnev seemed to hold back slightly because of his lack of confidence in the piano.

During the interval, the piano was once again attended to. There was some marginal improvement in the piano’s sound in the second half. Schumann, a quixotic mercurial genius who wrote some of the greatest of piano music and songs, found in Pletnev a well-nigh-perfect interpreter.

In the Arabeske the opening tempo was flowing but with constantly changing small variations and the tone was intentionally hollow. In the contrasting slower minor episodes there was a sense of intense dreaming, and in the rapt coda the control of pianissimos was breathtaking.

Kreisleriana was launched on a wave of turbulence and, again, there were small tempo changes and idiomatic rubato. In the long second section the tolling nine-note chorale was slow and rapt with total control of micro-dynamics and in its final appearance the rise and fall of the phrasing brought total peace and tranquillity. As the work progressed every change of mood was perfectly captured. In the polyphony of the final two sections every line was perfectly delineated, and the final appearance of the chorale was profoundly moving. Schumann-interpretation really doesn’t come any better than this – despite the piano!

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