Pletnev and the Philharmonia – 30th April

Mussorgsky arr. Rimsky-Korsakov
Khovanshchina – Prelude
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Alexander Mogilevsky (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 30 April, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Tonight the Philharmonia Orchestra sounded as if it had just stepped off a plane from Moscow or St Petersburg – a triumph for the conductor. Pletnev played to the orchestra’s strengths, producing an authentic sound full of character, trading the last degree of refinement in favour of intensity and passion, love and savagery. It was an ideal approach to Pictures, a piece whose combination of folk and sophisticated influences is a microcosm and a touchstone of Russian music, even of the Russian soul.

Pletnev took obvious delight in bringing each picture to life: the uncanny, sinister ’Gnomus’, the eerie ’Catacombs’, and the surreally exuberant ’Hut on Fowl’s legs’. He was equally at home shaping the smallest burlesque percussion detail and moulding the structural grandeur of a scene like ’The Gate at Kiev’. This was a performance so riveting and so right that it made all the more puzzling the waywardness of Pletnev’s recent performance of the piano version in the same hall. Or maybe not. Perhaps Pletnev is so in love with the magical effects he can conjure with orchestral colours that the more sober original has ceased to interest him.

If the Khovanshchina Prelude was characterised more by sweetness than menace, and thus underplayed the operatic drama it foreshadowed, it was again wonderfully idiomatic.

Sadly, Alexander Mogilevsky, a late replacement for Yefim Bronfman, seemed overawed by his London concerto debut. After a cool if well-phrased opening, he was by turns disengaged and ill-at-ease in the first two movements, neither projecting enough weight of sound nor sufficiently sustaining the long melodic lines. At the start of the ’Finale’, he suddenly woke up, discovered he had virtuosity and commitment, and fed off the life and vividness of the orchestral playing.

After the Royal Concertgebouw’s recent visit to the South Bank to play Russian music with Chailly, I speculated that London orchestras still do not quite reach the level of the world’s best. On the strength of this concert, I have to eat my words. Under Pletnev’s baton, and with his inspiration, the Philharmonia was second to none.

  • This Sunday, 5 May, Yevgeny Svetlanov conducts Scriabin, Liadov, Balakirev and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Viktoria Mullova
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Philharmonia Orchestra Box Office: 0800 652 6717 (freephone)

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