Philharmonia/Pletnev – 7 November

The Nutcracker – Suite, Op.71a (excerpts)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Suite No.3 in G, Op.55

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Left a little directionless by the death earlier this year of Evgeny Svetlanov, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky mini-series suffered a further, albeit minor blow this evening when Mikhail Pletnev dropped extracts from the rarely-heard Snow Maiden incidental music for a curtailed suite from The Nutcracker – decently played, but interpretatively no more than routine.

One might have expected the First Piano Concerto to have been a similar run-through, but this performance held the interest on account of Boris Berezovsky’s surprisingly deft and inward playing. Surprising, because Berezovsky’s leonine keyboard technique is not always the most subtle. He seemed intent on avoiding ’war horse’ associations, making the first movement a lively and intimate play on the ’big tune’ heard at the outset: one which never returns as such, but underlies every theme that follows in its wake. The cadenza, improvisatory in its follow- through, was all of a piece with the overall conception.

The ’Andantino’ brought some attractively refined orchestral playing, guided by Pletnev with the certainty of one who knows this solo part intimately; the capriciousness of the central prestissimo was deftly inflected. The ’Finale’ had virtuosity aplenty, but wit and humour too, and if the peroration was a shade literal, there was no doubting its conclusiveness. Indeed, after Lang Lang’s ill-advised mauling of the concerto earlier this year, Berezovsky’s undemonstrative approach came as a welcome tonic.

Conducting the Philharmonia six years ago, Pletnev gave a galvanic account of the Third Orchestral Suite – rarely revived these days, but one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest public successes – which, like Manfred, absorbs symphonic thinking into a non-symphonic guise. The first three movements can lack momentum (it would be worth hearing the Concert Fantasy’s ’Contrastes’ in its ’de-pianised’ context as the original first movement), but Pletnev found a rich vein of expression in the opening ’Elégie’ (along with that of the ’Polish’ symphony, Tchaikovsky’s most underrated slow movement), then brought gentle pathos to the ’Valse mélancolique’ – with its curious (and treacherous-sounding!) swaying viola theme – and a keen sense of fantasy to the ’Scherzo’.

The ’Tema con variazioni’ is the culmination in every sense, and Pletnev did not disappoint. Out of its unassuming theme emerges a full-blown set of variations – taking in a violin-led scena and aria (characterfully played by Maya Iwabuchi) and a Polacca which ends the work in scintillating fashion. Under Pletnev’s circumspect but attentive direction, it readily took off – confirming that he – like Tchaikovsky, perhaps – is at his best when least inhibited by the weight of ’tradition’.

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