Philharmonia/Ashkenazy – 17 October

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
The Tempest, Op.18

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Grieg’s Piano Concerto – on the face of it, standard fare. This concert turned out to be anything but routine. With the Philharmonia on the eve of a trip to Moscow and Japan it played at something like its polished best. This was especially so in the symphony’s slow movement, which emerged from the gloom of the first movement’s final bars with hardly any break, emphasising a continuity of mood between the two movements and reaching a level of unforced intensity all too rarely heard in the concert hall. Ashkenazy was on home ground. The performance moved forward with complete certainty, avoiding any hint of bombast and bringing out balletic qualities. Hearing the symphony played with this level of balance, transparency and sophistication, one could well understand why Mozart occupied such a pedestal in Tchaikovsky’s pantheon.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto was altogether extraordinary. Slow, even withdrawn for much of the first movement, emotions recollected in tranquillity (or at least reflected in the tranquil surface of a fjord), Pletnev teased out chamber music interplay with the woodwinds and found seldom-heard detail in the left hand; however, the first movement cadenza was despatched with power, authority and delicacy. The slow movement had real stillness and depth, much as Curzon might have played it – if anyone ever doubted that Pletnev is one of the world’s great pianists, the mesmeric and subtle way he played the last bar would have settled the question once and for all. As with the first movement, the ’Finale’ was taken at a speed fractionally less than usual; the additional elbowroom this provided was used for the most vivid characterisation. This was a rendition so fresh as to make one fall in love with the piece all over again, much helped and abetted by Ashkenazy’s sympathetic conducting; at the same time this was an interpretation unusual enough to offer plentiful ammunition to budding Beckmessers.

Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare-inspired The Tempest, which opened the programme, offered string playing of silky finesse, excellent woodwind intonation, and made the most convincing case for what is rather an episodic piece. The closing passage sounded strangely like a precursor to the Sibelius of En Saga. A memorable concert.

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