MUSIC / Sounds without effect

Before and after Stalin: Prokofiev's Sixth and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphonies, defiantly straddling the years 1947-1953. That's quite a journey in one evening. Prokofiev's symphony opened old wounds and took the lid off his worst fears. He was branded politically incorrect for his pains. Shostakovich bravely essayed the oppression of and liberation from the Stalinist purge. But only after Stalin had passed on. Doubtless Mstislav Rostropovich, who was to have conducted Sunday's London Symphony concert at the Barbican, would have laid bare the subtext with his inimitable theatricality. Mikhail Pletnev was very different.

Here's a man who regularly conjures orchestral sonorities from the keyboard - a great pianist. Watching him on the rostrum, one is first struck by the economy and formality of his manner - a cool head, fastidious hands. Indeed, in this performance of the Prokofiev there was a very real sense in which we heard what we were seeing.

The effect was curiously surgical, meticulously sculpted, every note, every line duly weighed and tested. The ugly staccato snicker of muted brass cut to the bone at the outset, the aftermath of the great central climax with its long throbbing B flat in the horns and bisecting pizzicati, the twisted woodwind plaint rising from the quicksand of strings in the second movement largo - I remember the details but not the reasons for them. The soul of the piece remained somehow undisturbed. There were places, dark places in its subconscious that Pletnev never took us. His reluctance to dwell, to stop the clock, robbed us of atmosphere. I shudder to think of what Rostropovich has made of that terrible emptiness just prior to the shocking peasant- dance turned goose-stepping coda of the finale.

A spectacular realisation of the Shostakovich proved considerably more involving. But then it can rarely have been better played. Those eternal woodwind solos, voices in the wilderness - none more memorable than the pained oboe shyly braving the new dawn at the start of the finale; or the stunning trenchancy of the scherzo - the composer's portrait of Stalin tearing through the very fabric of the piece with howls of derision from the woodwind and sabre-rattling side-drum. Such was the sense of release engendered in the finale, with Shostakovich asserting and reasserting his four-note monogram (DSCH), that the piccolo was at one point over- eager to romp home. Again Pletnev's attention to detail was absolute. Again, though, my experience was of drama vividly re-enacted, but not lived. Pletnev is that kind of conductor: his calculation makes for both his strengths and his shortcomings. He takes possession of the piece, but would that the reverse were also true.

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