Philharmonia Orchestra/Pletnev Nikolai Lugansky

The Voyevode, Op.3 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 8 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mikhail Pletnev. Photograph: Artyom MakeyevMikhail Pletnev opened this afternoon concert with the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s first opera, “The Voyevode” – not to be confused with his eponymous symphonic ballad (Opus 78). The latter, in little more than 10 minutes, offers a beautifully written love-scene framed by urgently dramatic music depicting the Voyevoda’s discovery of his wife’s infidelity. While that late work deserves to have wider currency, the same cannot be said for the early Overture! The opera received four performances in 1869, and only a year later Tchaikovsky destroyed the score. Even in this finely executed performance, the weakness of the music could not be concealed. Apart from a noble theme of Russian character, which occurs twice, and several tenderly written passages, there was little to command the attention.

Nikolai Lugansky’s reading of the ever-popular Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, written for the composer’s tour of the USA in 1909-10, had a patrician dignity that seemed at one with the soloist’s platform presence. Throughout the first movement he and Pletnev were at one in eschewing excessively romantic gestures, but in the powerful first-movement cadenza the soloist shone by virtue of his controlled, yet powerful phrasing. Throughout this movement, and indeed the whole concert, every department of the orchestra acquitted itself superbly. The opening phrases of the second movement were realised with real tenderness, and the central scherzo-like section was rendered with notable lightness of touch. In the finale Lugansky released power judiciously, and Pletnev was restrained but effective in his direction as the work moved to its rousing conclusion. Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G flat was offered as an encore.

The almost perfect touch which Pletnev often displays was not as evident in his approach to Sibelius’s Second. Written during 1901 in Rapallo, this work assuredly breathes more the spirit of Finland than of Liguria. Some of the most expressive playing was to be heard in the lento e soave sections of the third movement, especially from oboist Christopher Cowie, but no less from his colleagues. The Philharmonia Orchestra played like angels, and everything was beautifully graduated, but what was missing was integration, a sense that the finale was the inevitable result of everything that had preceded it. It is a rare conductor who manages to pull this off, and while Pletnev evinced a masterful control, the end result was somewhat less than overwhelming.

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