Philharmonia/Lazarev/Pletnev, Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 04 December 2003
The climax of Mikhail Pletnev's Rachmaninov concerto series was not guaranteed to be the centre of attention. A startlingly violent vision of music from Sleeping Beauty made sure of that. Such was the ferocity of the Philharmonia's playing that it reached toward older, more brutal Russian roots beneath the music's stagey glamour.
After this devastating start, conductor Alexander Lazarev collaborated with Pletnev at his most reflective and sophisticated in the most famous of Rachmaninov's concertos. The orchestra took a while to settle from its former brassiness, but then some juicy blends of horns and trombones took over. It peaked as the slow movement's melody passed suavely between woodwind and soloist.
In the big tune of the finale, Lazarev wisely played straight man to Pletnev's fantasist. Each time round the perspective was new. Pletnev conveyed the spirit of creating the music as he went along, something that is almost extinct in the score-bound tradition to which he belongs. Lazarev stayed with him as much as humanly possible, only to reach the final massive arrival of this tune - the world's biggest downbeat - and hear three distinct chords spread over a full half-second. It was a collector's moment, a touch of fallibility to offset the scorching pace and perfection of the final minutes.
Another such moment came at the end of the Divine Poem by Alexander Scriabin, when eager applause started up in the silence before the final two chords. Lazarev jumped around at the real end and gestured mockingly towards the audience, but there's little he could have done: the same thing happens every time this symphony is played. Lazarev swept through the 50-minute work with enough driving energy to make you think this was a piece that has all the ingredients to be a popular success - tunes, high drama, lavish colour, and big surprises. In many ways it's less a Russian piece than a French symphony in the line of Franck and Saint-Saens, with themes that transform through struggle in a steady progress from darkness to light.
All this makes for a bit of a sprawl, and that's often the problem with performances: listeners lose their way while one movement segues into another and music from half an hour earlier suddenly returns. But that used to be the trouble with Bruckner symphonies, and conductors have learned to hold those together. So it was with Lazarev here, though he still had time to enjoy the quivering detail and the fanciful birdsong that embellish Scriabin's journey. The outcome was a hall full of people who, to judge by their response, decided that there is more to this not-quite-impossibly idealistic composer than they thought.
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