Russian National Orchestra/Pletnev, Royal Festival Hall London

The trouble with being as great a pianist as Mikhail Pletnev is that your audience may secretly regret your presence on the conductor's podium when there's a keyboard to be played. When Pletnev's compatriot Boris Berezovsky took the stage for Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto, he did so with the music and a page-turner in tow. What kind of signal does that send? Would an actor arrive on stage with the script? Would Pletnev, the pianist, have elected to perform a work he either didn't know from memory or felt insecure about? I doubt it.

Now, Berezovsky can play all right - we have regularly thrilled to his expansive style and steely-fingered virtuosity. But here he was, with the top-class Russian National Orchestra, hanging on to every last semiquaver of the music in front of him. You may ask: what difference does it make so long as the notes get played, and well played? Orchestras don't play from memory. The conductor is duty-bound (for safety's sake) to use the score in a concerto. So why not the soloist?

Well, the reasons were clear from this performance. Berezovsky never sounded or felt free of the written page. There's a huge difference between playing a piece and truly inhabiting it. Berezovsky played Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto: he delivered the notes, but not the full extent of what lies beyond them. There was the semblance of brilliance in the bravura passages and poise in the reflective (though one wondered what Pletnev might have made of those shadowy recesses), but in a work as rhythmically challenging as this, Berezovsky's reflexes - the keenness of his rapport with the musicians around him - was dulled by the presence of the score, and a sense of abandonment to the work's euphoria was never fully achieved. In a phrase, score-bound.

Pletnev, the conductor, meanwhile presided over some distinctly fine playing from his orchestra. In Shostakovich's Symphony No 11 "The Year 1905", their conviction (so compromised in Berezovsky's Rachmaninov) was fiercely compelling. At last this great piece - for so long sidelined as merely "pictorial" Shostakovich - is finding universal favour as the masterpiece it surely is. The work stands as tall now as it always did against the misery of oppression wherever and whenever it is perpetrated (the symphony was written the year after Soviet troops crushed the popular revolution in Hungary), and its revolutionary songs carry an extraordinary weight of history. There's a moment that haunts the memory. It's when the proudest and most defiant of the revolutionary songs is turned into a lament for solo cor anglais. It's a voice at once broken but unbowed. And it breaks your heart.

Pletnev projected the text here with great precision and force. You could argue that his eminently musical overview was at times a shade literal; that the subtext didn't resonate as it can and does with, say, Mstislav Rostropovich at the helm. But the turbulence prevailed: the graphic portrayal of state brutality as harnessed in the pounding onslaught of solo percussion did its worst. And those numbing silences before and after catastrophe - they were something, one felt, that this orchestra recognised. Now we did too. Shaken and stirred, I'd say.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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