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Not your grandma’s Rachmaninov

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
02/20/2019 -  
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 – Symphonic Dances, op. 45
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Russian National Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

M. Pletnev (© Courtesy of the Russian National Orchestra)

The evening was to be an all-Rachmaninov program featuring only two works, one very well-known – the Symphonic Dances – and one supremely well-known – the famous Piano Concerto No. 2. So we were to expect nothing inventive, exciting, unpredictable, right?

Not quite. First of all, the performers were famous enough to fill the hall – and they did! Second, it was a rare chance to hear the artistry of Mikhail Pletnev, who only plays in New York once in a blue moon (the previous night we had seen a Super Snow Moon, which is still not as rare as Mr. Pletnev’s visits). I was fortunate enough to hear him in Poland during the summer of 2017 so I should have been prepared for what he had to offer, yet he managed to surprise me in more ways than one.

We should state from the onset that there are very few pianists before the public today whose sheer command of the keyboard can equal Mr. Pletnev’s. I hesitate to use the word “best” because that is difficult to prove. I prefer to say that as far as control of the keyboard is concerned, there are not many pianists who can create similar effects. I want also to stress that in my not-so-humble-opinion (at least I am aware of it!), playing soft is much harder than playing loud, and in this department Mr. Pletnev left the “other contestants” – well, save for Grigory Sokolov, who doesn’t come to the U.S. – in the dust. What Pletnev showed in some quiet, delicate moments of the second movement brought to mind such wizards of color and subtlety as Horowitz, Sofronitsky and Cherkassky.

In the Piano Concerto No. 2 which filled the first half of the program, our soloist was accompanied by the Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, who is establishing a sizable name for himself in Europe, and who with this performance was making his own and the Russian National Orchestra’s NY debut. (The Russian National Orchestra was created by Mr. Pletnev in 1990 as the first independent orchestra in the history of that country.) One unusual feature of the evening was Mr. Pletnev’s choice of piano; in recent years he has been playing on a Shigeru Kawai piano, sort of a boutique, hand-made model made in the Japanese factory that also mass-produces instruments. It was a wonderfully sonorous instrument that had a seemingly wider sound palette allowing for both thunderous sonorities and the most delicate, barely audible whispers. On the other hand, I am almost sure that such a master as Mr. Pletnev would obtain the same or similar effects from an ordinary concert-grand. Listening to the first two minutes of the C minor Concerto, the so-called “theme” invariably makes me wonder if there were ever two minutes of music that could encapsulate the Russian soul as persuasively, palpably, convincingly, as clearly, as did Rachmaninov’s in that opening dialogue of rolling chords of piano and soul-pinching tune of the orchestra. The second theme, a rising melody in the piano, was played in the free, ardent, vocal manner that again brought to mind Vladimir Horowitz, who never played this concerto in the United States, but who, with his love for Rachmaninov, must have known every note of the score. There was a similar rhythmic freedom, allowing time to stand still and bending the phrase as only a great singer would. One had the feeling that to each of Rachmaninov’s phrases there were words, and Pletnev was reciting them with his fingers. In that respect he proved himself a great thespian. This was willful playing and yet it was divine willfulness. In that situation it almost went without saying that following Mr. Pletnev’s lead became a formidable, nay, insurmountable task; the two protagonists were apart as often as they were together. And just imagine how miserable this collaboration would have been with an orchestra NOT accustomed to the pianist!

As I mentioned earlier, there were plenty of simply magical moments of tenderness, softness and affection, and one could only question the necessity of having the orchestra there at all. But they were good. A lush, rich, burnished sound of strings is almost to be expected from Russian-trained musicians. But this time I was equally impressed – also in the Symphonic Dances after intermission – with the winds. The French horn solos were immaculate; the clarinets, oboes and English horn were all on the level of the best orchestras. The last few times I heard this ensemble – AND the pianist – was in a much smaller hall, where the sound of the ensemble was just too overpowering. Here, in the vastness of the former Avery Fisher Hall (now, some uncounted millions of dollars later renamed after the money…er…the donor, David Geffen Hall), the balances were fine and the glaring sound that bothered me before disappeared. The faster parts were the precise, crystal-clear, lightweight, skittish playing which still comes from Pletnev without the slightest effort. I suppose the interpretative decision to spike the melody, delineating some lines or even some notes within the phrase, was a result of this pianist also being a composer, which one should not forget. Was he, in his mind, having a conversation with the sad-faced composer, another similarity between those two: “Hey, Sergei! Worry not. I am a composer too, and I know what I am doing!”?

At the piano or even walking toward the piano, our soloist cuts a picture of an unsmiling, stern person who could pretend to be…well, we are not here to assign jobs to people based upon their physiognomy or persona. Interestingly, whereas he walks from the wings to the piano in a very slow, deliberate manner, as if with difficulty, he returns much more energetically after playing. And that is his little game, and I have seen this disdain on numerous occasions when he would play or conduct in Poland. What did, however, strike me as a bit unpleasant was how little camaraderie he showed afterwards to his colleagues in the orchestra. Well, we love him not for who he is, but for the way he plays. And as I have already observed, though his interpretations are quite often both in solo works and with orchestra both live and recorded, about the wayward, willful, idiosyncratic and original, he still belongs to that absolute uppermost echelon of pianists we are fortunate to witness in our lifetime. His Rachmaninov concerto was without precedent, one that I would probably not want to hear again, and yet one that will forever linger in memory just as certain, equally perverse interpretations of Horowitz linger in our memories to this day. And speaking of that late great master: as an encore Mr. Pletnev treated us to a Scarlatti sonata, a part of the repertory close to V. H. In my memory, those two pianists were the greatest interpreters of that music on the piano. Here in the D minor Sonata K. 9, he showed the same magic dynamics, evenness of touch, color and control all in a bit of an old-fashioned manner, with added chords and augmented octaves. But who cares?

Maestro Karabits had a much easier job in Symphonic Dances, which this orchestra knows very well too, having recorded it with their artistic director, Maestro Pletnev. I was struck not so much with the interpretation, which frankly does not differ dramatically from one Russian orchestra to another, but with the very level of playing of those fine musicians. All the solo parts were superb, the character of music idiomatic, tempi perfectly chosen. He shapes the music beautifully and he does it without a baton: seems like that helps.

The reception from the quite enthusiastic audience, with its large Russian contingent many of whom might remember Mr. Pletnev as a young winner of the Tchaikovsky competition, was very vigorous, and Mr. Karabits and his musicians received a standing ovation. So we had three encores: one that was almost predictable and which was Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, performed as a transcription more often than the original, and predictably RNO played with tenderness and warmth. At that point, I should have left the hall but I stayed to witness two other encores, which probably reside at the top of the list of the most vulgar music ever conceived. These were Reinhold Glière’s “Dance of the Russian Sailors” from the ballet The Red Poppy and the equally crass Overture to Taras Bulba by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. I am already looking forward to the year 2097, when I’d like to hear those two works again.

Roman Markowicz



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