Russian National Orchestra/Pletnev

Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Russian National Orchestra did well to bring not one but two ’Cinderella’ works by popular composers. The Rachmaninov is the greatest of his concertos, a lucid, logical work full of soul expressed economically and with astonishing sophistication. After his wonderful account of the third concerto in this hall (with the Dallas Symphony and Andrew Litton), Boris Berezovsky was disappointingly outside of the less effusive but no less heartfelt emotions that are deep-rooted in the fourth concerto. One’s heart sank at his matter-of-fact opening, equally at the less than clarified orchestral response, and one recalled Pletnev himself essaying the solo part with an absorbing half-speed idiosyncrasy that was integrated to the composer’s pristine and complex scoring. Maybe Berezovsky is still getting into the work – he played from the score – and while his technique was infallible, and there were some beguiling touches (literally) and some involvement in the finale’s charge, this was an impersonal rendition that merely dallied with the surface.

Shostakovich’s symphony is a musical narrative centred on the first of two revolutions (although it has wider implications) that decisively changed Russian history. That of 1917 is famous but the 1905 one may be considered the more significant for having begun the process. Shostakovich’s conjuring of filmic atmosphere and the use of songs associated with revolt in no way lessens its symphonic progression (sometimes ’sub’, and masterly) of what is a remarkably compelling work; it should take the listener over for the hour that it lasts.

Anyone familiar with Kyril Kondrashin’s searing and incisive recording will know he’s through it in less than 55 minutes; the pole-apart is Rostropovich who breaks the 70-minute barrier (and with all the commitment, high emotion and gore that he can muster). Neither conductor seems misjudged – the power of rightness. Pletnev took 62 minutes and occasionally seemed too slow. Yet there was much to admire: the painstaking preparation, the control of the eerie, frosty sections, the building and release of tumult, and some exceptional playing, not least the violas’ plangent lamenting and a cor anglais solo that was ineffably poignant.

Yet Pletnev’s objectivity made some pages seem protracted (nothing to do with tempo but with less than total engagement with the ’inside’ of the music), and the woodwinds could have been more demonstrative as the second movement moved to conflagration. The big miscalculation was the bells at the end, which should be hammered; here, barely audible, yet they relay a percipient musical motif, one which signals further adversity. Overall, though, impressive and memorable, and if the allure of the RNO and Pletnev introduced this great work to people unfamiliar with it, then that’s all to the good.

No encore was needed but two from Tchaikovsky were forthcoming. The Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty, wonderfully graceful and flowing, at least made an Imperialistic contrast, but the Trepak from The Nutcracker was superfluous and rather downgraded the impact of the symphony. At the concert’s start, Glinka’s overture immediately established the wisdom of having antiphonal violins and the basses on the left; it was too fast, something of an exercise in the faster music, albeit with some attractive light and shade in the lyrical passages.

Memory plays such a crucial part in determining an informed opinion. I’m not going to forget, 20 years ago or so, Svetlanov storm through Glinka’s overture (in this hall); the Philharmonia Orchestra’s response had to be heard to be believed. I suspect the old fox hadn’t rehearsed it like that! But it didn’t seem too fast, which Pletnev did. For the Shostakovich this evening the spectres of Kondrashin and Rostropovich hovered relentlessly; that Pletnev ran them close emphasises what an impressive rendition he and his orchestra actually gave of it.

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