PIANO CONCERTOS / RACHMANINOV, PROKOFIEV / Pletnev

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PIANO CONCERTOS · KLAVIERKONZERTE

SERGE PROKOFIEV
No. 3 op. 26

SERGEI RACHMANINOV
No. 3 op. 30
Mikhail Pletnev
Russian National Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich
Int. Release 03 Mar. 2003
1 CD / Download
0289 471 5762 5 CD DDD GH


Track List

Sergey Vasil'yevich Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich

Total Playing Time 1:11:14

. . . it is arguably the finest studio-made performance since Horowitz's more than half a century ago. As a pianist Pletnev has quite a lot in common with Horowitz . . . But he is a far more musical pianist than Horowitz was, if not quite the same natural showman. Pletnev is always a searching interpreter, able to fuse instinct with intelligence.

Pletnev's fingerwork reveals the bejewelled nature of the composer's keyboard writing as never before and at first it seems that there will be sufficient joie de vivre to convince the sceptics. Tempi are unhurried throughout, yet the air of detachment becomes more acute in the finale where Prokofiev provides the sort of tidal wave denouement expressly designed to bring an audience to its feet.

The piano playing . . . is magnificent.

[Pletnev] has technique to burn and a wonderful sense of Russian melos. In the first movement, he takes a fluid, almost improvisatory approach, seconded admirably by Rostropovich. . . . The Russian National Orchestra is a splendid Russian-style ensemble with mellow, almost woodwind sounding, horns, sonorous lower brass, and a string section capable of surging and soaring where required.

. . . both scores are gloriously illuminated. Here are wonderful realisations of incision and consideration superbly recorded. The Rachmaninov receives a dark-earth account of soulful, volatile expression. Rostropovich clarifies Rachmaninov's orchestral 'small print' to offset Pletnev's fastidious insights.The Prokofiev is even finer . . . Pletnev's facility and fantasy, with Rostropovich's love and care, fuse this concerto into something totally meaningful.

Over the years, Pletnev's suave, technically impeccable pianism has become increasingly familiar. So it's perhaps no surprise that this new Rachmaninov's Third offers the warm comfort of an old sweater . . . Granted, it's hard not to admire Pletnev's sheer facility . . .

Nur selten dürften etwa die Dialoge zwischen Orchestersoli und Klavier bei Rachmaninow so hellhörig oder die Verwandlungen des Variationsthemas im Mittelsatz des Prokofjew-Konzerts so schlicht und dennoch differenziert dargeboten worden sein wie hier.

Mikhail Pletnev, endlich ans Klavier zurückgekehrt, gibt Proben seiner pianistischen Meisterschaft, präzis, voll virtuosem Schwung . . .

Pletnev spielt seinen Part mit quasi schwereloser Souveränität, bietet vor allem eine durchdachte, perfekt phrasierte Andeutung des musikalischen Gehalts.

. . . en la página de Rachmaninov, Pletnev no se abandona a la exuberancia y exageración a las que el concierto tiende a invitar, sino que el sentimiento se condensa en una interpretación bien consensuada con la orquesta, de importante volumen en la obra, con una magnífica rúbrica en el final. El Prokofiev es tañido con gran tensión y acento . . . En definitiva, he aquí un sapiente gusto por la precisión y la personalización de estas claves del repertorio. Muy bueno.
    Exploring Common Russian Roots

"You know, Prokofiev was a very sentimental man." Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich confides a treasured memory to his recording producer Christian Gansch, who had spontaneously commented on some unexpectedly "Impressionist" shading in parts of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Mikhail "Misha" Pletnev confesses a similar reaction. But it seems that, unlike Gansch, Misha isn't in the least surprised by what he has heard. "It's exactly as I had first imagined," he says. "Most musicians focus on the music's rhythmic language; but hearing those colours projected by Rostropovich with such intensity was a great help to me." Already there's a rapport in the making. Pletnev's enthusiasm is genuinely reciprocated when Rostropovich pays tribute to his musical instincts. "It's always the same with Misha: the phrases are so logical," says Slava. "That's why I love to perform with him. When he plays the first bar, I already sense what is coming in the second bar. He has a real vision of the music ...and his phenomenal technique allows him to articulate individual notes at fantastic speeds, as he does in the finale of Rachmaninov's Third Concerto."

It's Moscow in late September, a cold snap: there's even a forecast of snow. By coincidence, Rachmaninov's Third Concerto is dated "Moscow, 23 September 1909" (the New York world premiere took place two months later with the composer as soloist). Recording sessions are booked between 10 pm and 2 am in the famous Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the scene of so many great performances from the past. Ten minutes before the sessions are due to commence the hall's stairways echo to excited chatter. Soon they're silent save for the distant echo of music. While Rostropovich converses on stage with members of the Russian National Orchestra Pletnev extemporizes on themes from Rachmaninov's Third Concerto, flicking an arpeggio here, re-harmonizing at will there, or throwing off treacherous scale passages with breathtaking nonchalance. His recreative musical side-comments on Rachmaninov would be worth a disc of their own. He doesn't use a score. Later on in the session, he slowly strolls to the rostrum and signals "2 bars after 32". Rostropovich cues his baton and Pletnev returns to the keyboard, picking up where he'd left off, almost as if he was creating the concerto anew. As he virtually always does. His memory is prodigious. And he opts for the bigger of Rachmaninov's two first-movement cadenzas, but extraneous noises in the hall - squeaking on-stage chairs or a handful privileged onlookers who can't sit still - necessitate at least one re-take. Gansch addresses the concertmaster. "Please translate this for me...'I don't want Misha to have to play the cadenza five times!'" The ploy works. No more noise.

On the third night of sessions, before Pletnev arrives at the Hall, Slava puts the Orchestra through its paces in Rachmaninov. The slow movement, a broad, improvisatory "Intermezzo", is obviously something of a preoccupation. He signals to the second violins, imploring them to answer the firsts, which are placed - as is usual for the RNO (at least under Pletnev) - on the opposite side of the rostrum. Then he tackles the waltz-style passage that leads from the slow movement to the finale, music that is at once brilliant and wistful, and that in his hands sounds like Rachmaninov's orchestral swan song, the Symphonic Dances. Back in the control room Gansch excitedly turns pages of full score, marking passages that have worked particularly well. Throughout the sessions I sense a process of reciprocal influence, Pletnev taking on a little of Rostropovich's expressive generosity, Rostropovich bringing a touch of Pletnev-style leanness to his orchestral textures. Their shared love of the music is obvious.

Speak to Rostropovitch about his old friend Serge Prokofiev and he will proudly remind you that he is the only living dedicatee of a Prokofiev masterpiece. "Richter and David Oistrakh are in heaven now, which leaves only me!" he says. That masterpiece was the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra. But tonight he is conducting the Third Piano Concerto, a work infused with the adventuring spirit of the 1920s, and one that, like the symphony-concerto, melds wit, warmth and humanity. Again, it was the composer himself who had given the world premiere in America (Chicago this time, on 16 December 1921). Like Pletnev he evidently relishes every bar, refusing either to linger or to hurry. Wonderful music, but why this particular coupling? Gansch explains. "Most players establish an imaginary barrier between Rachmaninov and Prokofiev but Misha and Slava explore their common roots, including a very Russian brand of emotion. That's terribly important. Think of Prokofiev's second movement or the central section of his last movement, which are unmistakably Romantic. Misha plays Prokofiev very "melodically" and yet his Rachmaninov is quite straight, nothing like the sumptuous Hollywood-style approach of so many other pianists. Which of course intensifies the connection with Prokofiev." And yet Rostropovich finds only limited parallels between the two composers, stressing the "Spartan, Toccata-like" character of Prokofiev's earlier work in contrast to the softer contours of his later years. "War and Peace - that's perhaps where Prokofiev is most like Rachmaninov," he says. "Those later compositions are the most lyrical."

Both composers left recordings of these particular concertos. Rachmaninov made his in 1939/40 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy; Prokofiev's 1932 recording is with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Piero Coppola. I wondered whether Pletnev had been influenced by listening to them: maybe he used one or the other as a sort of reference before the sessions. "No!" he exclaimed decisively, then sipped tea before measuring his words. "Composers have the right to play whichever way they like," he said. "Of course Prokofiev was a wonderful pianist, but Rachmaninov - he was a genius. He was the greatest pianist I have ever heard, though only on records. And although his playing was touched by this genius of his, we should never think of it as the only way. For any composer, his music is his 'baby'. Sooner or later the baby grows up, leaves home, and meets other people who will interpret it. That's why, rather than turn to Rachmaninov's own recorded performance, I look inside myself, see what the music has given to me, listen the way it speaks to me. That is what I try to reveal." Rostropovich is of a similar mind. "To copy Rachmaninov?" he says with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders, "that would be a very great mistake! That would be very artificial."

And yet isn't it also true that both composers have in the past been the victims of interpretative clichés, Prokofiev in terms of excessive percussiveness (a common vice), Rachmaninov with needless romantic indulgence. "I cannot really judge," confesses Pletnev laconically. Plainly, cliché is OK ... if it works. "Probably there are many good interpretations around that for one reason or another people like. I have nothing against that in principle," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, the more variety, the better. I cannot blame anyone for being 'too much this way' or 'too much that way'. Everybody has the right to choose how he should play. If there is a grain of talent on offer, or a grain of vision in the musical performance, then I would tend to acknowledge it. And if you read Rachmaninov's letters and interviews you soon learn that he actually enjoyed hearing his music in contrasted performances because they gave him interesting ideas about what lies hidden in his own music."
Rob Cowan