Philharmonia/Lazarev – 11 May

Berlioz
Le Corsaire – Overture, Op.21
Chopin arr. Pletnev
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev


Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne

Reviewed: 11 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra opened with a rush as Alexander Lazarev brought vigour and gusto to Berlioz’s dashing overture. Influenced by both Cooper’s “The Red Rover” and Byron’s “The Pirate”, Berlioz was a fan of swashbuckling seafaring tales and seems to have undergone some surprisingly perilous adventures of his own. At one point legend has him surviving a suicide attempt in the Mediterranean and on another occasion washed overboard and subsequently plucked from the raging sea by a swarthy Venetian ’corsair’. They were a Romantic lot back then! Lazarev didn’t spare the Philharmonia and raced to the finish with some of the most energetic conducting I’ve ever seen.

Mikhail Pletnev spent the first two minutes on stage in a Victor Borge style incident where first he, then Lazarev, then the stage manager and finally the first violinist all took turns to examine a mystery substance on the piano stool. With a bemused look and a shrug of his shoulders, Pletnev produced a ripple of mirth through the audience, and after a brief confab, their collective genius found a cloth and wiped it off.

Possibly distracted by his comic turn, Pletnev merely went through the motions for the first few minutes of the Chopin concerto, but with his focus steadily returning, this most mercurial of pianists began to produce music that was nothing short of heaven-sent. His arrangement involved a number of changes to Chopin’s orchestration. This is the second time this year I’ve heard Pletnev live and the second time I’ve been overwhelmed by his depth and directness of communication. The remainder of the opening was laced with tender pathos, the ’Larghetto’ was delivered as a sublime, languid reverie, and the concluding Rondo sparkled, Pletnev’s filigree technique producing the most subtle and delightful whimsical interplay between piano and orchestra. What struck me on both this occasion and earlier is the astonishing, almost magical ’gestalt’ effect to Pletnev’s playing. It really has to be experienced to be believed.

If Lazarev was animated in the first half, after the interval he literally came bounding onto the platform to launch Tchaikovsky’s F minor symphony. If he felt a bit subdued in the Chopin concerto he was certainly making up for it here, with conducting that at times bordered on the manic. Although the Philharmonia responded with some equally lively playing, I couldn’t help feeling that some of the foreboding qualities of the music were being lost amidst the melee of hand gestures.

The second movement, according to Tchaikovsky, is evocative of a “state of anguish” where “a cloud of memories appears. It is both sad that so much is already passed and gone, and pleasant to recall one’s youth … Life has made you weary…” There was no such weariness from Lazarev, and the movement sounded unconvincing, and possibly a little under-rehearsed. The Scherzo (Pizzicato ostinato) proved much more suited to his mood and delighted with some charming pianissimo pizzicato work.

Unfortunately, all hell broke loose in the Finale with Lazarev substituting the ’Allegro con fuoco’ marking for a sort of ’prestissimo con insanito’. In fact his conducting became comically hysterical at one stage. I don’t know how to describe it except that it was rather like watching a video on fast forward with the volume turned up to the point where the ground was moving. Collective insanity ensued as the audience greeted this with rapture. I made a hasty exit to keep my memory of Pletnev.

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