These were concerts to See
and Hear; to savour live,
think about and remember for long afterwards. They were the better for
there being no forest of radio microphones or TV cameras to distract;
the communion, which engaged eyes fully as ears, was contained within
the auditorium space.
This Beethoven piano concerto cycle in three evenings
began with Strauss in sombre mood, his reference to the Beethoven Eroica
adagio in Metamorphosen: study for 23 solo strings making
for a tenuous thematic link. A description of this 'sustained symphonic
adagio' as 'the saddest piece of music ever written' was copied into
the programme notes; a threnody, perhaps, for the destruction of Dresden
& Munich towards the end of the War, an 'elegy for the death of
German culture' (Wendy Thompson).
I had never seen Metamorphosen played live as
originally intended, and would not again wish it other. It was engrossing
to watch the subtle intermingling of the strands in their many groupings.
Christoph von Dohnanyi maintained a forward thrust, not really
an adagio feel, which I found continually engaging and uplifting.
From Row S of the stalls the sound, though modest in decibel count,
was sonorous and full, more so than it looked likely to be, a testimony
to Strauss' profound knowledge of all the orchestral instruments. Bartok's
Divertimento in the second concert engaged me less, and its solo
string quartet sounded thin within larger string orchestral forces.
I had wished Metamorphosen had been placed before
the interval on 4 November, and wondered how Beethoven's earliest concerto,
No 2, could possibly follow it immediately. In fact, it had served to
draw the audience in, and helped to prepare ears for the super-subtleties
of Pletnev's piano playing. Dohnanyi established at once a quality of
tone and balance which augured well for their association, and he proved
wonderfully attuned to Pletnev, never encouraging the orchestra to a
show of strength.
Mikhail Pletnev was fascinating to watch and
often signalled surprises with his body language. In the first concert,
his languid walk to the piano and curt, almost dismissive acknowledgment
of the audience preceded a unique 'throw-away' treatment of the famous
solo statement which precedes the orchestral tutti in No 4, often treated
to an intense portentousness, but here thrown away as if he was just
checking up on the instrument, for himself, not really speaking to us
yet. Before No 3, he sat down and immediately played a single chord,
as if greeting his piano with a handshake, defusing at a stroke the
cumulative tension that often builds up during long a orchestral introduction
before the soloist join the fray.
As with his treatment of Tchaikovsky
in last year's concert cycle at RFH, when he accompanied the orchestra
with the famous introductory chords of No 1 like a baroque violinist
playing himself in during an orchestral ritornello, Pletnev draws
you in by stealth, instead of trying to pit himself against an orchestra
- an unequal contest in live concert situations - though in the second
concert some reserves of power were revealed in No 3, which inhabited
very different territory from No 1 before the interval.
Acclaimed by all, these performances will have spoken
differently to different listeners. One was heard to admire 'a fine
pianist, so simple'! For pianists and experienced pianophiles Pletnev
is not so. His basic posture is with low wrists, which can augur well,
and the over-riding hallmark is his command of physical relaxation -
I would not be surprised to learn that he did not feel particularly
tired after his double exertions. Every entry, indeed every phrase,
was individually characterised, in his responses to the orchestra, sometimes
inwardly communing, at others playful, the finale of No 1 racing away
to show he can rival any speedster, that of No 3 taken at a comfortable
tempo to accommodate the humour it contains, despite Beethoven's dire
personal circumstances with increasing deafness, soon after the Heiligenstadt
Testament. And most importantly of all, the variety of touch and pedalling
colouring Pletnev's passage work, which was never over-inflated in significance,
a lexicon of degrees of legato and non-legato at his easy command.
Pletnev has not yet recorded the Beethoven concertos.
What chance, when he does, of so judicious a balance (rare in concerto
recordings) as achieved in his Tchaikovsky
CDs for Virgin? To hear Pletnev's virtuosity of touch, not of velocity,
try his way with Grieg
Lyric Pieces and, for a Beethoven foretaste, a revealing Op
111 in his astonishing Carnegie Hall debut recital, both on Deutsche
Peter Grahame Woolf