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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Concert Review: He's Happiest On the Bench

Mikhail Pletnev returns with the Russian National Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mikhail Pletnev (at piano) with members of the Russian National Orchestra in 2017.
Photo courtesy the Russian National Orchestra © 2017.
When you're a world-class composer, conductor, arranger and concert pianist who is also the founder and artistic director of an important international orchestra, you can pretty much sit wherever you want. That's the home truth from Wednesday night's appearance at Lincoln Center by the Russian National Orchestra. For this concert, Mikhail Pletnev, who founded the orchestra in Moscow in 1990, chose the role of soloist, letting conductor Kirill Karabits make his New York podium debut.

The program featured two major works by Rachmaninoff, from two very different periods of the composer's career. In the Piano Concerto No. 2, Mr. Pletnev was the first voice heard, playing tolling intervals (and Rachmaninoff's favorite medieval church theme the Dies Irae) in a solo introduction that was answered by the rich, deep sound of the orchestra. The RNO's greatest quality is that it has its own tinta, dark and somber yet capable of exuberance in the brightest moments.

Rachmaninoff was one of the most gifted concert pianists in history, and his compositions were written for his own huge hands and prodigious technique. In each of these movements, Mr. Pletnev took the solo passages and made them his own, stretching a note value here, rushing a passage there to create a highly personalized and unique take on this familiar concerto. He was ably supported by Mr. Karabits' accompaniment, carefully controlling the surging tides of strings.

Other instruments step to the fore in the later movements. The clarinet has a solo in the slow movement that puts the soloist on temporary, equal footing with the pianist. It plays a lamenting tune that is one of Rachmaninoff's most familiar. In the finale, the woodwinds play an arabesque figure that was also cribbed by pop songwriters. Through all this familiarity, Mr. Pletnev's piano moved in sure, sweeping arcs, with the soloist unleashing floods of staccato and arpeggio passages, often at the same time and in response to each other.

The concerto was followed by the first encore of the evening. This was Scarlatti's D minor sonata (catalogue number K. 9). This little-heard, delicate music was played with elegance, grace and the lightest of touches by the nimble Mr. Pletnev. The work alternates between two dancing figures, one skipping up and down the keyboard, the other presented in a series of gossamer right-hand trills. The performance took place in a profound and respectful silence, and was met by a pandemonium of deserved applause.

The second half of the concert featured Rachmaninoff's last work: the Symphonic Dances. Although there is a supporting piano part in this music, Mr. Pletnev was absent from any role. Mr. Karabits led a muscular and square-shouldered performance of this dark and doom-laden music. Each movement becomes a totentanz of a kind thanks to Rachmaninoff's frequent repetition of the Dies irae, and the nervous staccato rhythms and jaunty, mocking themes show the older composer's thinking to be parallel to that of his successor Shostakovich. The last movement is the strangest, here becoming a string of seemingly disconnected orchestral ideas that shift like a kaleidoscope before coalescing into the final chords.

The RNO and Mr. Karabits obliged their audience with a troika of Russian encores. They started with more Rachmaninoff: a transciption of the composer's Vocalise. This was followed by a toe-tapping, hand-clapping movement, the Russian Sailor's Dance from Reinhold Glière's ballet The Red Poppy. The audience clapped the opening rhythm in an outpouring of joyful recognition before letting the players get on with their jobs. Finally, the orchestra played a proper symphonic encore: the overture to the opera Taras Bulba by Mikhail Lysenko. That work may be forgotten in the international repertory but it resonated with the hearts and minds of those present.

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