Philharmonia Orchestra, Pletnev and Lazarev (25 November)

A Life for the Tsar – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In the third of his four concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra covering Rachmaninov’s concertos, Mikhail Pletnev alighted on the final, least popular yet arguably the greatest of Rachmaninov’s four, which could have been written for Pletnev; it’s exploration and whimsy suit him perfectly. Quite why this concerto hasn’t taken off is mystifying. Maybe it’s too musical in its intricate construction – it demands careful listening (not just attention on the soloist); maybe it doesn’t sound like the second and third concertos – which it doesn’t – and so disappoints those wanting a repeat of those oft-played works.

This is Rachmaninov at his most sophisticated; yet for all the abstraction there’s no lack of memorable tunes, passion or vivid communication. There’s a leaner quality, the counterpoint is more considered, and the largesse of the lyrical outreach, although less obvious, is moving and haunting.

In performance, it needs a pianist able to meld with the orchestra, one who appreciates that the soloist has equal billing with the orchestra, and a conductor who can sift and balance Rachmaninov’s carefully calculated scoring with a refined ear. Here was such a performance. In its deconstruction of Rachmaninov’s text it was fascinating. Maybe the opening was under tempo, but how wonderful to hear Pletnev letting the orchestra through, the complex interweaving of instruments wonderfully clear.

Throughout, Pletnev was characterful and telling but never dominating. Rachmaninov 4 is not a conventional piano concerto. Pletnev knows this. He appreciates the simplicity of some of the ideas, which distil Rachmaninov’s inner thoughts. This was Pletnev and Rachmaninov exploring, of one mind, and confirming the work’s undoubted stature.

Alexander Lazarev’s conducting throughout the evening was a happy mix of verve and punctiliousness. He’s becoming a very welcome regular with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Glinka’s overture could only be the prelude to a drama (certainly as Lazarev conducted it!). Glinka, who did so much to establish a Russian ’school’ of composition, conceives his overture in classical style, one hears the Beethoven of King Stephen, an anticipation of ’middle-period’ Verdi, nationality flavoured by Russian folksong.

Poor old Scheherazade! The indignities that this rather subtle and straightforward piece has had placed upon it in the name of so-thought ’great’ conducting is quite disturbing. Well, here was Lazarev serving up a splendid performance – not one bar was mauled: no phrasal stretching, no milking, no underlining, and no tricks. The music doesn’t need it, and actually can’t take it. Lazarev’s thoughtful, direct and thrilling rendition did the music proud. If one or two string solos were a little nervy, the woodwind playing was peerless (including some burly bassoon twists!), with brass and timpani ideally integrated. James Clark articulated Scheherazade’s violin appearances, the harp in attendance, with Lazarev happy to stand back and listen.

Lazarev’s Scheherazade was both a treat and a tonic. With Rachmaninov’s ’Cinderella’ concerto taken in no uncertain terms to the ball, this was a fine and memorable concert. Pletnev completes the Rachmaninov cycle tomorrow, the 27th, with concerto No.2, and Lazarev conducts Scriabin’s The Divine Poem.

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