Philharmonia Orchestra – Pletnev & Sokhiev (16 November)

In the Steppes of Central Asia
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For the next month at the Festival Hall, it’s a Rachmaninov piano-fest with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Mikhail Pletnev plays all four concertos – this was the first instalment – and Boris Berezovsky brings the Paganini Rhapsody on 14 December. (András Schiff offers some classical contrast on 2 and 9 December.)

Although Pletnev was the main draw, this concert belonged equally to the Philharmonia and its young guest conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, who produced a superlative performance of the Second Symphony.

The seldom-played First Concerto here received a performance both mesmerising and capricious. As with Shura Cherkassky, one never knows what to expect with Pletnev. In this respect he did not disappoint. After the piano’s opening flourish there was an understated languor all Pletnev’s own, particular details were highlighted, the finest filigree lines were spun, and the cadenza was appropriately thunderous. The slow movement was pure poetry, flickering half-lights as the cellos sang and the most magically poised final bar from piano and violas. In the finale we got a hint of things to come in the symphony with Sokhiev’s flexible and expansive shaping of the gloriously lyrical second theme before the dash to the finishing post.

Despite more than his fair share of wrong notes on this occasion, Pletnev is one of the truly great pianists with the power to commune effortlessly with an audience – had he been a politician he would have been a hypnotic public speaker – and despite occasional mannerisms there is an inherent musicality in most of what he does.

The symphony was remarkable on a number of counts. The Philharmonia was on peak form, playing with its unique combination of warmth, balance and tonal finesse. Sokhiev’s unfussy but precise direction suggested that the whole score isactually laid out on two enormous pages. Those long arching melodies often degenerate into Hollywood – emphatically not here; Sokhiev unerringly shaped the line and found the jugular at the centre of each phrase, for the most part understating dynamics by couple of notches but emerging from the shadows to clinch the argument at key points, the symphony constantly moving forward.

As far as tempo relationships are concerned, there was an unforced current of conviction, which swept one through the piece. Above all, Sokhiev understands the importance of the strings in this music – which here shone lustrously, especially at climactic points, such as in the slow movement (which welled up from somewhere deep inside); the second violins virtuoso playing at the opening of the Trio was memorable. Nor was there an ugly sound from the brass or timpani, both integrated into the sound-picture. Particular mention must also be made of Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet solo in the slow movement, Jane Marshall’s cor anglais and Kenneth Smith’s dulcet flute.

The programme opened with In the Steppes of Central Asia, atmospheric and restrained. An outstanding concert.

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