Philharmonia Concert – 4th November

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mikhail Pletnev is an enigmatic musician. Equally gifted on the podium as at the keyboard, his conducting over the last decade seems to have shed much of its spontaneity for an objectified, would-be-authoritative view of Russian and German symphonic repertoire. Yet on the evidence of this first of three concerts surveying Beethoven’s piano concertos, his quixotic, re-creative pianism has survived intact.

This was the more noticeable after an account of Metamorphosen that can only be described as dull. Dohnányi’s pacing of this elegy for German culture was consistent to a fault, smoothing out gradations in dynamics and tempo so that the music never took wing in the striving for affirmation of its central portion, nor registered true resignation in the implacable return of the main theme and the ’Eroica’-tinged stoicism of its closing bars. Some initial cello discoloration aside, the body of 23 solo strings rose confidently to the challenges of Strauss’s richly contrapuntal texture, but the interpretation remained obstinately earthbound.

Pletnev changed all that, especially in the Second Concerto. Completed by 1795, this first major orchestral work falls awkwardly between the poise of Mozart’s Vienna concertos and the more robust approach that Beethoven was to pursue in his subsequent two concertos (i.e. numbers 1 and 3) – and is normally played as such. Not so by Pletnev, whose teasing, almost skittish first entry – after a brusque orchestral tutti – set the tone for his interpretation as a whole.

Thus the opening movement’s central development was made a more pertinent dialogue than usual, with the cadenza (added much later) less a Beethovenian study in sonority than a sardonic commentary on the principal themes such as Busoni might have written. The ’Adagio’ largely eschewed charm, though the magical closing sequence of exchanges between soloist and strings was meltingly rendered, with the ’Rondo-Finale’ brisk and no-nonsense in demeanour; the brief, non-syncopated return of the main theme given an insouciance true to Pletnev’s capricious overall perspective.

The Fourth Concerto was more of a curate’s egg, in that iconoclasm has little place in the most Olympian concerto of Beethoven’s cycle. Admittedly Pletnev did not repeat the audacity of his detached, forte rendering of the limpid opening phrase, but the first movement seemed listless until the pathos of the development section galvanised piano and orchestra into a greater rapport. The earlier, more familiar of Beethoven’s cadenzas was probingly sculpted, with the re-entry of the orchestra disarming in its plaintiveness.

The ’Andante’, so easy to reduce to cliché in its ’Romantic’ contrast of soloist and orchestra, was the highlight of the evening. Pletnev countered the strings’ gruffness with playing of absolute poise – here and in the improvisatory solo passage leading to the heartfelt, though provisional close. In the finale, Pletnev was never averse to making the running in this ostensibly most democratic of concerto partnerships – and how good to see Dohnányi meeting his provocations with an ’off-the-wall’ immediacy of response. The movement emerged as it all too rarely does these days: incisive, poetic and life-affirming.

Beethoven concerto cycles have hardly been unusual occurrences on the recent London concert scene. Judging by this first instalment, however, the Pletnev/Dohnányi/Philharmonia traversal looks set to be an active and stimulating one.

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