Classical Review: Crowd control in the picture gallery

Uta Buchheister and Graham Johnson

Wallace Collection

Mikhail Pletnev

Barbican, London

The Long Picture Gallery at the Wallace Collection has a perfect acoustic for piano, though a singer might like a little more resonance. Perhaps, too, the young German mezzo-soprano Uta Buchheister, giving her London debut recital on Sunday morning, needed a more expansive sense of projection. In Brahms's "Auf dem Kirchhofe" the final line seemed to fall a bit short - after all, it is talking about release from the trials of life.

Buchheister is a protegee of Graham Johnson, who here partnered her at the piano, with far too much rubato in Schubert's "Auf dem Wasser zu singen", which needed to flow more naturally. Buchheister is quite new to the profession, having obtained a degree in Philosophy and German at Oxford only three years ago, and although she won "Das Schubert Lied" in Vienna last February, it's early days to assess her.

The voice isn't ravishing, and while that does not necessarily matter, Buchheister's tone tends to get gusty on climactic notes. Still, she held a large audience's attention in a solid 65 minutes of the most searching Lieder, including Schumann's cycle Frauenliebe und -Leben and two appealing songs by the woman whose love inspired it.

The same afternoon at the Barbican, Mikhail Pletnev displayed the art of managing an audience on the most sophisticated level. When latecomers disturbed the continuity of Tchaikovsky's G major Piano Sonata after the most exquisite imaginable exploration of the first movement, Pletnev was not at all put out, but waited patiently, then played the wistful slow movement with equal poise.

At the end of the programme, after announcing Chopin's "black note" study, someone rudely shouted out "What?" and Pletnev simply repeated himself, before scampering through the piece as if it were a delightful Mendelssohn scherzo, treating the delicate descent into the coda, quite shamelessly, as a glissando.

He did play a Mendelssohn scherzo too: a rarely heard Scherzo a capriccio in F sharp minor. He also played two shorter Mendelssohn pieces, an Andante and a Presto agitato, quite perfect in its crystalline brilliance, and the famous Rondo capriccioso, the introduction to which he nonchalantly wrapped up with the merest twitch of his right forefinger, as if choosing a chocolate.

When he had heard enough applause, Pletnev made a tiny reproving gesture with his hand. And he strolled on to the platform as if he might not vouchsafe a performance at all.

But what depths of dynamic perspective he brought to Liszt's Dante Sonata, as if not merely Gustave Dore but Rembrandt himself had illustrated the Inferno. And the first Mephisto Waltz was articulated with a fascinating range of colour. Pletnev never forced the piano tone, for he had more than enough at his disposal, and the thrill lay in sensing strength that was withheld.

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