Classical Music: Bringing a shine to the Rach revival

Pianist Mikhail Pletnev reinterprets the Russian greats.
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The Independent Culture
SERGEI RACHMANINOV'S Swiss summer home - Villa Senar - was transformed last week into a press hall and recording studio. Mikhail Pletnev performed repertoire that Rachmaninov played but never recorded and Deutsche Grammophon's finest engineers travelled to Weggis (near Lucerne) to tape the result. In the interests of authenticity, Rachmaninov's own piano was temporarily fitted with original 1930 hammers. "What is it like to play?" asked one journalist. "You can hear for yourself," he said curtly. "It's wonderful". Rachmaninov's grandson, Alexander Rachmaninov, tackled other questions, shadowed by microphones, cameras and a spaghetti trail of electric cable.

For the past year, Tony Palmer has been gathering material for a Rachmaninov film. He took Alexander to the house in Southern Russia where Serge had once lived and that the Bolsheviks destroyed in 1918. Palmer talks about masses of home movies that have never seen the light of day, but the younger Rachmaninov has his doubts about their appeal. "I think Tony is too optimistic," he confesses. "You can watch my grandfather playing football with a white dog. It's amazing how the dog catches the ball seven times in a row - good enough to be in a Russian circus. But who in England would want to know about such things?" As many as would love to read 300 unpublished letters that are due for legal release - one hopes - in 2003.

Rachmaninov's music continues to hold its appeal, and proposals for "new" arrangements arrive by the week. "We even had a request from the Belgian government to make a march from the Third Piano Concerto," says Alexander. And did he grant them permission? "No!" A fortune-teller who years ago prophesied that the same concerto would gain popularity in 1993, or thereabouts, had anticipated Shine - "a terrible film," says Alexander, "horrible, with anti-musical cuts".

Pletnev had, in the meantime, wandered into the huge garden for a quiet smoke. His Russian National Orchestra is still thriving, but in other respects a lack of adequate funds and governmental support makes for an "unhealthy" situation at home, although Pletnev is grateful that "there are still big concert audiences out there and a lot of enthusiasm for music."

Like Rachmaninov - but unlike many of his own peers - Pletnev is both a sworn enemy of crass commercialism and a fiercely individual interpreter. "You ask me if `bad teaching' is to blame for the blandness we hear among pianists today, and I tell you that, if you have a personality, you cannot hide it. Like a strong tree fighting a storm, it will survive. Teaching gives you the means, the tools; but too many modern pianists just play the notes. Any monkey can play notes - it should be an impossibility for you to live without music."

He continues. "Even while I'm talking to you, music is going round in my head. It will die in me only when I die." And is this music his own, or someone else's? "Both. My Classical Symphony recently received its first performance, and I have just completed a Viola Concerto for Yuri Bashmet."

Pletnev bemoans a dearth of really good viola music, especially in our century. "There are a few modern concertos - by Schnittke and others. But they are written in this so-called `modern' style, which isn't really modern any more. There are no melodies; just a construction and some very ugly sounds. You even wonder whether the right notes are being played." Pletnev's intention is to "fill the gap where a big, melodious viola concerto might fit in - and if any notes are missing, everybody will know!"