Philharmonia Pletnev Tocco

Festive Overture, Op.96
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26

James Tocco (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mikhail Pletnev’s concerts as conductor are rarely less engrossing than those as pianist, and this programme of Russian music was no exception. Such are the vicissitudes of scheduling: Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto had been hit by two cancellations (Ivo Pogorelich then Boris Berezovsky), and the second replacement James Tocco has rarely, if ever, worked with either the Philharmonia or Pletnev. Whether this, or because Tocco has not often performed this concerto (although he played from memory), was a vital factor, the outcome had little more to offer than a run-through.

Tocco’s pliant, flexible pianism was best heard in the more introspective passages – the ruminative development-cum-interlude of the first movement, for instance, or the sensuous lead-in to the final rendition of the finale’s ‘big tune’. On the other hand, figuration presaging the return of the opening Allegro’s main theme was disastrously underplayed, while the second movement’s faster variations and the finale’s outer sections hardly registered given the imbalance between soloist and orchestra. A pity – Tocco is an able pianist, as his recordings of American repertoire amply demonstrate.

The remainder of the concert gave us Shostakovich and the polar opposites of his post-war output. Pletnev’s lithe but unhurried way with the Festive Overture – Philharmonia brass relishing but never overdoing its forthright contribution – made one appreciate its motivic ingenuity afresh. Current thinking is that the composer actually wrote the piece to mark the 30th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1947, then shelved it in the wake of the Zhdanov crisis – only to release it in 1954. Just why, however, Shostakovich would choose to ‘sit’ on music that accorded so ideally with the idiom the Soviet authorities wished to see him adopt is unclear – hence the re-dating must remain conjectural.

After the interval, the Fifteenth Symphony: most personal and inward-looking of all Shostakovich’s orchestral works, though its scope and impact means that this is never chamber music ‘writ large’. The Philharmonia gave two memorable performances with Kurt Sanderling during the final years of his association with the orchestra – and Pletnev’s approach, appreciably different in conception – was of the same seriousness. The opening Allegretto built steadily and intently – with no false whimsy in the occurrences of the William Tell quotation and with a properly claustrophobic intensity invested in the serial processes abounding in this deceptively lightweight movement. The Adagio was the highlight of the performance: brass chorales balefully delivered and the cello soliloquies passionately phrased by David Cohen. Pletnev’s control of momentum through the ‘last trump’ passage and on to the climax – seismic yet proportionate in impact – was unerring, and the intertwining of celesta and vibraphone towards the close was exquisitely judged. The second Allegretto followed on with its quizzical manner duly enhanced by malevolence. Between scherzo and intermezzo, and with the presence of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony made palpable, its grim humour and flickering half-lights were tellingly conveyed.

The finale is expressively at once the most equivocal and most extreme of any Shostakovich finale. Pletnev brought a simmering anticipation in the opening Wagner allusions, and shaped the main theme with the uncertain motion that its rhythmic gait suggests. Although he proceeded to reign in the tempo appreciably for the central passacaglia, memories of Sanderling’s greater daring at this point were not effaced, nor was the latter’s desperate sense of fulfilment on reaching the movement’s awesome central culmination. Even so, Pletnev was only marginally less impressive – faultlessly balancing the twelve-note chord into which the climax dissolves and steering the music through into an airily intense coda, whose delicate yet insistent percussion ostinati and bare harmonies crystallise the content of the symphony as surely as they leave any deeper meaning undisclosed.

A memorable performance, then: one which the Philharmonia, having failed to record the work with its now Conductor Emeritus (though a recording of that mesmeric last Sanderling account exists in its archives), should look to capture for posterity – in what will hopefully be a continuing relationship with this most undemonstrative yet (when he chooses!) penetrating of current Russian musicians.

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