Philharmonia/Pletnev at the Festival Hall, London SE1

Nikolai Lugansky
Times Online (UK)

By Hilary Finch

It was Guy Fawkes night; but it was also the eve of the anniversary of the October Revolution, and Mikhail Pletnev and the Philharmonia found pyrotechnics aplenty in Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. It is exuberantly over-the-top celebratory music, with a brass band augmenting the orchestra. And it was delightfully droll to watch the supercool Pletnev seeming to let it all freewheel.

Then down to business. Nikolai Lugansky seemed totally unfazed by being conducted by another larger-than-life pianist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1. Pletnev, who is acquainted with every nerve and sinew of the work, also knew just how to whet the orchestra’s every response, nudging and moving the first movement’s smoochy tune just when it was necessary, and creating a drifting cloudscape of tone over the bright light of Lugansky’s beautifully voiced solo melody in the slow movement.

Lugansky plays with glinting clarity and a rigour that is never driven. In a cracker of a finale, crisp brass entries were answered by snappy fingerwork. And both Lugansky and Pletnev exploited to the full the music’s crisscrossing of metre and asymmetrical accents. Rhythmic figures seemed to tug at the barlines, yet also to spin effortlessly on their way.

This fusion of intense precision and nonchalance is at the heart of Pletnev’s character and music-making. It could be felt, too, in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony after the interval. The crest of the first movement’s great melodic wave built almost imperceptibly, in a slow, taut layering of themes and meticulously balanced voices. Pletnev’s building and releasing of orchestral tension and shifting weights was gripping.

The second movement was slick and sudden, with horns on fast zoom. And the way that Pletnev made us aware of the sophisticated beauty of the slow movement’s crafting led to an inner intensity that never became overheated.

Does this prolonged musical sigh, growing from the clarinet, signify nostalgic melancholy, or deep, resigned content? This performance posed the question, but left it delightfully unanswered