Philharmonia Orchestra / Sokhiev / Pletnev, Royal Festival Hall, London

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Mikhail Pletnev is a pianist who illuminates aspects of a work that others overlook. He has his detractors, and his way with the Viennese classics has sometimes been distinctly capricious - he is certainly not one to leave the lily ungilded.</p>As he opened his cycle of Rachmaninov piano concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra, his volatile attack - positively savage on his explosive entry - and his delight in savouring the perfume of the more languorous episodes - suspending time over individual notes as if he were holding a gemstone up to the light - drew attention to the patchwork nature of the First Concerto's opening movement. (That is partly the result of Rachmaninov's revision, in which he deleted transitional passages and changed the ending to make it more intense.)</p>If you had not found Pletnev's phrasing in the lyrical part of the cadenza irresistibly sexy and his opening solo in the middle movement a marvel of sophisticated blandishment, or had you not been riveted by the subtle shading and timing of his dialogue with the orchestra based on the slow second theme in the final movement, you should not - and probably would not - have been there in the first place.</p>In the 25-year-old conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, the music director of Welsh National Opera since last January, Pletnev had a strong and evidently appreciative partner. A past pupil of the celebrated teacher Ilya Musin, this handsome, though not very tall, young man cut an authoritative figure. Wielding one of the shortest batons I have seen, and encouraging his musicians with flashing smiles and very specific attention to individual sections, he drew a firm line throughout Rachmaninov's Second Symphony and balanced its textures judiciously: if the brass all but drowned the strings briefly at a climax, it had to be. He knew when to leave alone, too, so that Mark van de Wiel could create a mood of flawless calm with his endless clarinet solo in the slow movement.</p>Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, written two years after the Second Symphony, is on a comparably epic scale. What happened to Rachmaninov between writing his First Piano Concerto in 1890 and revising it in 1917 must have been a kind of awakening, by which he recognised what was essential and what was merely conventional: he learnt not to lose control of tension, particularly harmonic tension. In the intervening years, he also grew, quite literally in terms of length, as a composer, so that he was able to plan works, such as the Second Symphony, on an epic scale - in particular, the Third Piano Concerto. </p> The Rachmaninov Concerto cycle ends at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (0800 652 6717)</i> </p>