Philharmonia Orchestra – Mikhail Pletnev Conducts Beethoven

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mikhail PletnevThis Philharmonia Orchestra concert found Mikhail Pletnev at the helm (replacing the originally advertised Sir Charles Mackerras) for Beethoven’s last two symphonies. As pianist, Pletnev’s cycle of the piano concertos with this orchestra some years ago, with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting, brought illumination and provocation in equal measure. Conversely, Pletnev’s conducting of Beethoven’s last two symphonies brought very few insights.

Certainly the Eighth Symphony got off to a very average start with a first movement whose exposition repeat evinced little intensification and whose development was marred by portentous phrasing such as undermined its overall momentum. The Allegretto was better, for all that Pletnev eschewed its invitation to deadpan humour, while the ‘Minuet’ that follows had an appealingly Mendelssohnian lilt – with notably secure horn playing in a trio that was undoubtedly the most successful part of the performance. In the finale, however, Pletnev could not resist placing undue emphasis on the C sharps that interpose between restatements of its main theme – reaching an apogee in the laboured reiterations before its minor-key presentation. Alertand disciplined playing alone could not rescue the impetus of this movement, brought to a close with thudding tonic chords, nor save the performance from being barely more than the sum of its parts.

The ‘Choral’ Symphony is, of course, overloaded with preconceptions of which any present-day reading must fight to rid itself. Treating the initial crescendo almost as a slow introduction is not in itself objectionable, but Pletnev is no Furtwängler when it comes to positing and then reconciling extremes. Conversely, the contrapuntal hub of the development was especially fleet – though, as in his famous account of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ third movement, the intention seemed to be more about demonstrating his control over ensemble rather than furthering any interpretative ground-plan. Nor did the coda, for all the incidental detail that emerged, end the movement with the necessary implacability. Pletnev’s swift tempo for the scherzo was finely sustained by the orchestra, though the effect was to iron out those textural contrasts and motivic subtleties crucial to its underlying structure, while the trio was made a flitting interlude that evinced little sense of Arcadian delight.

In terms both of concept and execution, the third movement was the highlight of the performance: Pletnev found a near-ideal accommodation between its alternating themes, with their ‘alchemic’ fusion midway underpinned by a magical cadential passage that all but stole the show from the fanfares that are a more obvious climax. A pity, though, about the ponderous chords that robbed the movement’s close of its sense of anticipation, and a relatively lengthy pause that diluted the finale’s opening of its explosive violence.

Matthew RoseThat finale began well – Pletnev taking the trouble (as few do nowadays) to integrate the recitatives on cellos and double basses with the recollections of earlier movements, in an engaging process of question and answer – but the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme then unfolded with a disconcerting lack of elation. Matthew Rose was commendably secure in the treacherous initial recitative, and if Timothy Robinson rather lost the battle with the orchestra in the Turkish processional, the soloists blended uncommonly well as a quartet – making their final ‘cadenza’ a pleasure to hear.

Nor was the combined Philharmonia Chorus and Voices found wanting, the singers as sensitive to Beethoven’s introspective musings as they were unanimous in their conviction to his affirmative outpourings. Pletnev, while he made no obvious miscalculations in his handling of its complex overall form, seemed content merely to direct the movement through to its close – which lacked the elemental exhilaration that results from its long-term formal unfolding being allied to an expressive goal gradually but surely coming into focus.

Perhaps it was simply that Pletnev had little of consequence to say. If so, he is hardly alone among today’s conductors, but it would be a pity if the Ninth becomes reduced to ‘business as usual’ status.

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