Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor
Symphony No.2 in D
Nikolaï Lugansky (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 25 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The opening of orchestral seasons around the world has been affected by the 11 September atrocities, albeit in a minor way compared to the suffering of so many in Washington and New York. While the London Philharmonic’s last-minute replacement of Anne-Sophie Mutter by Felicity Lott on 16 September was for a case of illness rather than travel logistics, this opening concert of the Philharmonia’s new season was so affected. Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, both America-based, were unable to make it to London. Instead the Philharmonia looked east and contracted at the eleventh-hour two Russian pianists.
Pletnev himself had been caught up in trans-Atlantic events. He was an hour away on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow, destination New York, where he was due to participate in the Lincoln Center’s Rachmaninov series with the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The Orchestra had already been turned back at Heathrow; Pletnev’s flight was diverted to Newfoundland where he spent four days until the all-clear was given to return to Moscow. Consequently his additional engagement with the Cleveland Orchestra was impossible to honour and thus Pletnev was free for London. (For those interested, the Lincoln Center, the Philharmonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy and tour organisers, Harrison Parrott, are hopeful that the New York Rachmaninov concerts can be rearranged for this forthcoming January.)
Miraculously, the Philharmonia’s opening programme remained virtually intact. The only casualty was Mussorgsky’s original version of Night on a Bare Mountain (I am guessing that Pletnev would favour Rimsky-Korsakov’s cleaned-up rewrite) which was replaced by Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Somewhat heavy-handed in his approach, Pletnev replaced inspiration with a rather dogged literalism.
The biography sheet handed out with the programme informed that Nikolaï Lugansky had performed with Pletnev as conductor before. I’m not really sure it showed in this performance. Lugansky is a clear and unfussy player, but there was little meaning behind his precise placement of fingers on keys. On Pletnev’s part, he was simply at pains to provide an accompaniment, not to mould a cohesive whole.It was a case of two halves resolutely refusing to come together; that said this was a rescue package and not a long-planned performance. As it did not completely hold my attention, I was even more aware of the dichotomy between the Philharmonia’s strings (particularly the first violins) and the Leader – or Concert Master as the Philharmonia now has it – Christopher Warren-Green. When at the end of a phrase the rest of the violins keep their bows in the air, he immediately puts his bow-hand down on his knee, which does not befit an orchestra of world-class quality. I have been put off by his antics in the past.
Thankfully all such thoughts were subsumed by a wonderful performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. This was, in at least two senses, indulgent – it was quite slow (about five minutes longer than the average 43 minutes indicated in the programme) and had a distinctive Russian aspect in both Pletnev’s interpretation and the sounds he conjured from the musicians, such as the fruitiness and sense of abandon from both horns and trumpets, and individual, rounded wind solos. I’m not sure what Sibelius would have thought – remember it was written at a time when Finland was trying to extricate itself from Russian overlords – but there is absolutely no doubt that the music can withstand such an interpretation. I came out refreshed and rejuvenated.
- Mikhail Pletnev returns in November to play Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi – November 4, 8 and 13
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk