In usual times it was in European concert halls that one could see the outstanding Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev in October, with it being very difficult to catch his peformances in Russia, let alone in St Petersburg Philhamonic Hall, where his last performance took place in 2004. However, with recent travel restrictions Russian residents can enjoy the appearances of native music stars in abundance, and it was the case with Mikhail Pletnev who visited St Petersburg in October 2020 with a powerful programme of two piano concertos: famous Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and the 2nd Piano Concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Mikhail Pletnev @Stas Levshin

The programme of the evening was part of the series of performances “Russian and International Orchestras and Ensemble” and, while being the first appearance of Russian National Orchestra in St Petersburg since 2013, it was also the last but one in their tour culminating with a concert in Moscow afterwards. The initial conductor for the programme was Mikhail Tatarnikov, but at the last moment (not a novelty in current concert management) he was replaced by his young colleague Andrei Rubtsov. Among Rubtsov’s accomplishments are: doing an assistantship with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, becoming an associate of Royal Academy of Music in London, writing his own compositions and performing at contemporary music festivals. Mikhail Pletnev, an opera and orchestral conductor and a pianist of the world fame, needed no introductions to St Petersburg audiences who greeted him with standing ovations after each part of the concert.

Interestingly, the substitution of the conductor shifted the balance between the conductor, orchestra and the soloist, with Rubtsov paying every effort to follow Pletnev’s lead in the concert, rather than being himself the leader of the orchestra and the soloist. The conductor was positioned behind the piano and could not be seen from many parts of St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall. In many instances Andrei looked at Mikhail Pletnev as though waiting for him to cue and define the tempi of the performance rather then leading the orchestra himself and forming the concerts by Beethoven and Saint-Saëns according to his interpretation. Thus, it turned out to be an evening for a soloist with an orchestra, with Pletnev’s persona and extraordinary contemplative style of rendition leaving its indelible mark on the audiences in St Petersburg.

The concert – Mikhail Pletnev at the piano

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is one of the most recognizable pieces in the world repertoire. We all have some extracts from it in our memory and will instinctively tune in to its certain passages without being music connoisseurs. However, Mikhail Pletnev during that evening did something extraordinary: he made us forget that we are hearing this very Third Piano Concerto and changed its tempi, introduced new accents, ritardandos and pauses in such a way that it sounded completely new. It was almost like a contemplative improvisation within the theme of the concerto, or a philosophical observation by someone, who looked at it from a new perspective to uncover things never noticed before.

The audience needed to adjust to such an interpretation by the famous pianist, and took some time to accept this discovery, this new perspective. The tempi were sometimes so surprisingly slow that one wondered whether it was indeed Beethoven. But once we immersed ourselves and followed the path that Pletnev offered, trusting him as a guide and forgetting about preconceptions about this music, an evening of music discovery began. I was sitting in the 5th row of the Philharmonic Hall, quite close to the pianist, and I felt like Pletnev was leading us through this concerto. He was not performing it in the strict sense of the world, he was expressing something else with its notes and took liberties with it, if he thought that his message required it. And I understood that one should just try and enter this doorway and see what depths and mysteries can await us behind it. I am sure many of the listeners on that evening had the same emotional effect: tapping on the unknown, discovering one’s faculties of listening, beginning to hear music as never before.

Mikhail Pletnev @Stas Levshin

With the Concerto by Saint-Saëns Pletnev was more conventional and letting the conductor Andrei Rubtsov to become the center of our attention and lead the orchestra. Andrei indeed brought together youthful elegance with sensitivity, knowledge and professionalism. He still remained very attentive to Pletnev who took the opportunity to impress the audiences with his virtuoso qualities. The concerto offers plentiful opportunities for a pianist with its improvisational introduction and cadenza in the first part that is (unusually for a concerto) is andante. Here I think Pletnev decided not to experiment too much and delivered this piece as a showcase of his mastership. However, there were still moments of touching upon the beauty and depth of music in his encores: he performed Chopin’s Nocturne and Rachmaninov’s Prelude, but he did it in his own trademark way. Pauses meant more than sounds, and new connections had to be formed between the seemingly well-known notes. Once again, it was an invitation to the world we only began to discover with this unique musician. Hopefully, St Petersburg audiences will not have to wait for another 16 years to see Mikhail Pletnev perform in their city. Whatever the future holds, this evening will always be stamped on our memories as an unforgettable one.