Classical Philharmonia / Mikhail Pletnev Royal Festival Hall, London

Mikhail Pletnev's mastery of Tchaikovsky is already well-documented through much-praised recordings of the Pathetique and Manfred symphonies. Last Wednesday's Philharmonia concert at the Royal Festival Hall went one better, however, with a performance of the Third Orchestral Suite that was so affectionate, playful and artfully shaped that I longed to hear him interpret the other three.

String lines were expressively inflected, inner parts especially, while stylish rubato smoothed the crest of each phrase and instrumental balancing was well-nigh impeccable. And when the retreating echo of the first movement's principal theme stole the air, Pletnev rose to the moment with supreme sensitivity. Elsewhere, tempos were fairly brisk and the orchestra consistently on the ball - especially in the Scherzo's gambolling trio (with its witty woodwinds-and-percussion crossfire) and the Variations' closing Polonaise.

"Great conducting," I thought, though when it came to the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet excerpts, "Montagues and Capulets" made a hasty and somewhat lopsided entrance (the rhythm oddly askew), "The Child Juliet" seemed quite without charm and "Tybalt's Death" - his timpani death-throes underpinned by gasping cellos - hammered the air like gunfire.

The concert concluded with a rousing, if unremarkable, performance of Alexander Nevsky, chilling in the Prelude, with grim commentary from "The Crusaders in Pskov" and a measured build-up for the "Battle on Ice". The battle itself (always something of a Mickey Mouse war) was a swift, sleekly tailored affair, with well-drilled support from the Philharmonia Chorus, while the ultimate victory as Alexander entered Pskov brought the house down. Best of all was mezzo-soprano Irina Tchistjakova's vibrant, mellow- toned singing of "The Field of the Dead", a coincidental memorial to the victims of the day's tragic schoolroom slaughter, to whom Sunday's follow- up concert was specifically dedicated.

That began with Borodin - a lean, finely drawn Prince Igor overture - before Pletnev and the orchestra were joined by Nikolai Lugansky for a big-hearted presentation of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. Still in his early twenties, the self-effacing Lugansky is a fine technician who tended here to stress top-line melodies at the expense of significant counterpoint, although his limpid handling of the second movement suggested potential to spare. Pletnev's accompaniment was regal, full-bodied and profoundly insightful - very much the work of a pianist-conductor.

His finest hour, however, was in Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, the full flowering of what we already know from an impressive CD. Here, though, the textures were fuller, the colouring deeper and darker, while Pletnev's sense of line, his natural feel for the score's pulse and pace make him, in my view, its pre-eminent present-day interpreter.

Most impressive was the ebb and flow of the first movement's Allegro, the careful - though never crude - application of expressive string portamenti in the second movement's big melody and Michael Whight's superb clarinet solo in the Adagio. Pletnev gave us a Rachmaninov No 2 that was without fuss, without cuts and without the slightest hint of disfiguring over- statement. It was the sort of performance that challenges preconceptions and changes minds.

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