Philharmonia Orchestra – Mozart & Pletnev

Rondo in D, K382
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Mikhail Pletnev’s interventionist approach either works or it doesn’t, whether he is playing or conducting. He took both roles in the first half, and, surprisingly, used the scores (and the services of a page-turner; he, servant-like, carefully removed the Rondo to replace it with the Concerto) – but this is not to suggest that Pletnev didn’t know the music. Pletnev’s orchestra-layout was intriguing for the piano-and-orchestra works; the solo instrument was positioned to the left, on the slant, with the strings ranged left to right in several rows from violins (Concert Master James Clark sitting one chair in) to just two (not enough) double basses. The strings looked like ‘an audience with Pletnev’. The woodwinds, brass and timpani were positioned normally. It worked well, Pletnev oblique to the (real) audience rather than with his back to us and he had a good view of all that he surveyed.

Interpretatively, in all three works, Pletnev toyed with the structure with increasingly predictable methods: slowing for second subjects, signalling ends of expositions with long-held punctuation (in the symphony’s slow movement, for example) and by making all sorts of dynamic and tempo variations that seemed whimsical rather than illuminating. Of course musicians who can take familiar music to unexpected vistas are to be treasured, but Pletnev seems far too calculated. The joins showed, even in a bit of frippery such as the Rondo. It was played with delightful elegance, but Pletnev’s penchant for sectional disjunctiveness ensured the parts did not make a whole.

The first movement of the concerto lacked a gripping emotional undercurrent; it was all too comfortable and pretty. Designer! Beguiling, yes, in that one can only admire a point of view so eloquently expressed – and in Mozart’s A major concerto (K488) it might have more convincing. But there is more to this D minor work (“demonic”, supposedly) than a mannered slowing there and a dynamic change here. Yes, one could admire Pletnev’s superb playing (in the sense that he did all that he wanted to, and also that his pianistic touch and address is the epitome of culture) – and that the Philharmonia’s response was vital, totally committed and refined. The programme note mentioned Beethoven’s cadenzas for this work without citing what Pletnev was actually playing. It was Beethoven for the first movement and ‘difficult to say’ in the finale, partly because I’d switched off – beautiful sounds, yes, but the listening was too ‘easy’.

Much the same in the symphony, the strings now sitting ‘as usual’ if without the antiphonal violins that Pletnev often favours. (He conducted from memory.) The first movement was fast (‘Molto’ as Furtwängler understood the direction rather than the unhurried gravitas that Giulini conjured), but the second subject suddenly took another (slower) tempo, which just seemed gratuitous and even more so in the repeat. The finale was hard-driven and not always articulate. As in the concerto, there was an inconsistency of emotional identification (some passages were aflame, though), yet although the Andante was nicely turned (save for underlined punctuation) and the Minuet had a welcome charged quality (and a wonderfully ethereal Trio), the symphony also failed to add up.

Pletnev’s approach was neither Classical nor Romantic; it was something of both and sustained by lurches and idiosyncrasies – or life-changing revelations. But it all seemed more of the moment than part of a master-plan. And, yet, such an approach might be more ‘authentic’ than the ‘correct’ (tight and unyielding) renditions that pass for so-called ‘period’ performances today. If, to these ears, Pletnev’s cosmetic concerns played down the stormier aspects of the concerto and his sectionalising of the symphony was a distraction, it couldn’t have been better done and returns to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 31st after trips to The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury (27th) and Bedford’s Corn Exchange the following night.

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