CLASSICAL MUSIC / The strange case of the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL 1918 the Russian calendar managed to be 12 days behind the rest of Europe. This complicates matters; but by modern reckoning, yesterday, 6 November, was the centenary of the death of Tchaikovsky - one of the most fascinating deaths in music history. Mozart's was straightforward by comparison. Mozart, we know, died of natural causes: the myths are nothing more than that. But with Tchaikovsky, the jury is still out as to whether it was cholera or poison - self- administered, the story goes, at the command of a kangaroo court which saw fit to 'try' him for his homosexual involvement with a young aristocrat.

Now, there is no clear evidence for this, and none is likely to appear unless the Tchaikovsky archive at Klin, near Moscow, has the documents - which is possible as the archive is notorious for shielding its treasures. All we have are word- of-mouth reports, and scholars are divided on them. But the issue is important because the true details of his death might lend some refinement to the cartoon sketch we tend to take as true of his life: that of a chronic depressive decanting his emotional unfulfilment into his work. That may be the truth, but it can't be the whole truth. Music makes unreliable autobiography - the degree of abstraction is usually too great to bear diaristic reading - and the broader aspects of Tchaikovsky's work spotlit this week at the Wigmore Hall provided a timely challenge to any ear that hears him in single-track terms.

The Wigmore is running a centenary festival which is small in scale but thoughtfully planned and given over to distinguished Russian artists, like the Borodin Quartet and Sergei Leiferkus, who are rooted in native tradition. On Thursday night it was the pianist Mikhail Pletnev, representing Tchaikovsky at his most domestically secure, urbane and genial in a complete performance of The Seasons - 12 portraits of the months of the year, collected together like a pictorial calendar. Their metier is Schumann. They come with cosily intimate titles such as 'At the Fireside' (January) and 'Snowdrop' (April). And their salon manners place them low in the esteem of many pianists, which is why they aren't often heard. Tchaikovsky wrote and published them in monthly instalments and apparently regarded them as a contractual chore, further diminishing their status.

But Pletnev transformed them into jewels of captivating artifice: paste jewels, perhaps, but totally convincing. His approach was serious, with a cool control fleshed out with extraordinary depths of colour, texture and an almost padded density of sound. Above all, he was brilliantly inventive with Tchaikovsky's sometimes winsome melodies, distributing the points of weight and focus with ingenious insight into their not- always-obvious potential.

This was astounding playing. Pletnev's platform manner has a Richter-like severity: you feel that he resents the prying presence of an audience. But by God, this man is a musician; and a polymath musician too. He spends just over half his time, these days, conducting orchestras, and last Sunday he conducted the LSO (replacing an indisposed Rostropovich) at the Barbican in a heavy but well-

received programme of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. All power to him for that. But not, I hope, at the expense of the piano.

There was more Shostakovich at the Barbican on Wednesday when Andre Previn took the LSO through slow (his moderatos come like largos) but rich performances of the First Cello Concerto and Fifth Symphony. The LSO was at its lustrous, virtuosic best - the best orchestral sound you'll hear in Britain at the moment - and Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, was impressive too. But things began with just two players on the stage, for the British premiere of Previn's new Cello Sonata, which he and Ma performed together.

Now Previn is another distinguished polymath: conductor, jazz musician, pianist, Morecambe and Wise straight man . . . But as a composer he has always been a lesser mortal, clutching at straws of ideas that hold together elegantly but thinly. And this Cello Sonata is no exception. It is 40 minutes of musical smalltalk: nicely crafted but, like all smalltalk, evasive and uncommitted.

Stylistically, the Sonata is one of Previn's many attempts to bridge the traditions of 'high' and 'low' art. It's the common pursuit of American composers. But those who do it well - like Bernstein - do it aggressively: with chutzpah and an endearing disregard for canons of taste. Previn does it with a smooth facility that smacks of diffidence. It's all too unassuming. And too unaffecting.

Recorder-players presumably find the recorder an affecting instrument. I don't, and I'm generally resistant to its claims to expressivity. But virtuosity is another matter; and on Monday I heard a young Mexican player called Horacio Franco enlarge a Telemann suite for recorder and strings in a way that would have astonished Telemann out of his wits had he been around to share the experience.

It was the bizarre highlight of an otherwise very proper concert by the European Community Baroque Orchestra, the halfway house for gifted young period performers (average age: 24) between college and professional life. The ECBO runs for three months of the year, and spends most of that time on tour under the direction of prominent period interpreters.

Ton Koopman was in charge on Monday from the harpsichord. He rattled through a programme of Purcell, Biber, Rameau and Vivaldi that delivered both the best and worst of period Baroque. It was exciting, vigorous, and horribly abrasive. But the central interest was Franco who, before a black-tie audience in Kensington Palace, played like a demon: slightly short of breath on longer lines, in a way that dissipated their brilliance, but otherwise with an astonishingly animated sense of line that was . . . well . . . almost musical.

Finally, Greig - whose 150th anniversary was observed (belatedly) by the Barbican last weekend with a mini-festival that resurrected one of the highlights of last year's Scandinavian celebration: a concert performance of the complete Peer Gynt score, fitted into a skeletal version of the Ibsen play to give an idea of its original context. The orchestra was, as before, the Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Jarvi, and in good form, with a wonderfully developed string sound. But the star of the evening was the piece itself: an early, epic paradigm of magic realism that activated a productive nerve in Greig's imagination. The score may be contemptibly familiar; but it never fails.

Tchaikovsky Festival, Wigmore Hall, 071-935 2141, Tues to Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)

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