Philharmonia Orchestra – Pletnev & Sokhiev (20 November)

Russian Easter Festival Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30
Romeo and Juliet – Ballet, Op.64 (excerpts)

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 20 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Rachmaninov wrote his Third Piano Concerto for an American tour, practising it on a dummy keyboard while crossing the Atlantic, to get his fingers round the fiendishly difficult solo part. At the third performance, the conductor was Gustav Mahler, no less.

Pletnev and Sokhiev make a pretty formidable pair. They – together with the ever-impressive Philharmonia Orchestra – treated us to Russian music as Russians might play it to each other. There were no Western interpolations of syrup, lethargy, maudlin meandering or staggering about prior to collapsing in a drunken heap.

Pletnev’s playing had a cool elegance and refined romantic sensitivity nearer to Ravel than Tchaikovsky – close in style to Rachmaninov’s own performance.

The opening was exemplary – grave and restrained, with a rocking lilt and a gentle forward-moving drive. This approach respected the composer’s musicality – and, fascinatingly, sustained the movement’s discursive structure. (This is not an old war-horse to be played condescendingly and blindfold, melodramatically and with inattention.)

The slow movement held a silver-grey dawn, imbued with an aching Russian melancholy. This was the genuine article – a contemplative, elegant longing, tinged with a refined nostalgia. There was a wonder to this mood being expressed so delicately and melodiously, and quite unaware of its openness to being vulgarised as merely a luscious big tune.

The last movement is the weakest of the three. It was brief, had little to say, but held my attention. In lively contrast to the gentle rocking of the first movement, it had a vigorous thrust. (Far better that than being a pallid, disappointing, discursive reflection of an over-theatrical first movement.)

Pletnev and Sokhiev offered that rare thing, a true partnership. You could see them working together – no wondering what the other might be up to, or oh-so-carefully ensuring that they met at the agreed rendezvous. The Philharmonia is playing four concerts with Pletnev. This was their second outing with him. Like the rest of us, the musicians acclaimed him fervently. He in turn – the soloist, mark you! – acclaimed them, rightly.

Prior to this delight was Rimsky-Korsakov’s gravely simple Russian Easter Festival Overture which was for the most part a succession of attractively-played solo spots for different sections of the orchestra to sotto voce accompaniment, progressing towards an appropriately restrained climax.

The extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet were rousing and captivating. Musically, it made sense to begin with ’Montagues and Capulets’ and finish resoundingly with ’The Death of Tybalt’. We were, after all, in the concert hall, not at the ballet. The playing was supreme and confident, precise and pointed. All praise to the tuba and the trombones. The tonal colouring was razor sharp – as it should be in Prokofiev.

This performance kept me eagerly awake. A bright, stark Mediterranean sun blazed throughout.

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