Mikhail Pletnev may be an officially designated Russian "people's artist", but he's been an international treasure ever since he won gold in the Tchaikovsky Competition at 21. His playing combines crystalline clarity with technical brilliance; his interpretations are always original, his performances never disappoint.
Travelling down the Volga with him and his Russian National Orchestra in 1996, I got the measure of him as a pianist, as a conductor and an astute operator. Having founded the first capitalist orchestra in Russia since 1917, he was using it to regenerate cultural life in some of the country's most depressed post-Soviet cities: no wonder he was hailed in Kazan and Togliatti as a hero. He didn't practise, but played like a dream.
He is also a controversialist: he once shocked the bien-pensant modernists of Radio 3 by arguing that Western classical music was "over". This wasn't mere mischief: it was part of his crusade to get people to listen to the forgotten 19th-century Russian composers he loves. And though he can come across as arrogant, he's devoid of vanity: listening to his own recordings, he said, was "like seeing your ugly face in the mirror".
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