Philharmonia Concert – 8th November

Piano Concerto No.1 in C
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Spontaneity came in abundance with Mikhail Pletnev’s first instalment of Beethoven Piano Concertos (Nos. 2 and 4); his account of the First Concerto continued in the same vein. Temperamentally the most uninhibited of the five, it responded well to his verve and pointing of the witty discourse with the orchestra. Pletnev opted for the shortest of Beethoven’s first movement cadenzas, a streamlined surge to the tonic whose questioning of the whole procedure anticipates (or reflects, depending on its date of composition) the anti-cadenza of the Fifth Concerto.

The ’Largo’, placid but never complacent, was beautifully judged, and those who might question the seriousness of Pletnev’s attitude to Beethoven will have been surprised by the sheer poetry of his closing exchanges with the woodwind. Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia were at their most attentive here, backing Pletnev to the hilt in the surging élan he brought to the finale – Haydnesque brio joining with Mozartian caprice (hence the allusions to the finale of K467) in music of truly Beethovenian panache.

If the Third Concerto was less successful, this was as likely owing to differences in conception than to failings of the performance itself. Long considered the most equivocal of the cycle, the weight and range of the piano writing is not easy to balance with the orchestra’s pathos and restraint. Pletnev stressed the bold, disruptive nature of the work, whereas from the opening tutti, Dohnányi clearly favoured something closer to the Mozartian model – a daring conflation of the emotional trajectory of the C minor Concerto (K491) with the formal plan of the D minor (K466) – in its classical objectivity. In the first movement, this worked only fitfully, notably in the tonal descent back to the home key in the reprise. The cadenza was punchy but short-winded, and the breathtaking return of the orchestra – the focal point of the movement in all senses – passed for little (though it stood little chance, given the avalanche of coughing at this point!).

For all its undoubted finesse, the slow movement was just not slow enough, Pletnev’s flowing initial tempo underselling what should be a startling switch to E major at the opening. By avoiding the unmarked but surely intended attacca marking, he similarly failed to maximize contrast going into the finale. This went well, with the strings’ stealthy central fugato and the piano’s ’false’ recall of the rondo theme lightly despatched, though Pletnev’s launching of the mini-cadenza before the orchestra had ceased, leaving only resonance in its trail, was a quirk unlikely to bear repetition.

Dohnányi opened the concert with an engaging account of Bartók’s Divertimento, the Philharmonia’s strings excelling in the opening movement’s robust antiphonal exchanges and the heartrending central outcry of the ’Molto adagio’ – the more affecting for its literally muted quality. The closing ’Rondo’ found the balance between sophistication and rude vigour, leader Maya Iwabuchi heading the charge for the triumphing Hungarian sensibility. A triumph too for Dohnányi.

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