George Loomis , The Moscow Times, 3/20/2004

The Chameleon

A composer and conductor, Mikhail Pletnev is also a pianist of extraordinary range, combining technical showmanship with refined lyrical expression.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky's piano music takes a back seat to his symphonies, ballets and operas, but the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev was out to win converts at his recital in Carnegie Hall last week. On the program were the Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72, a work lasting more than an hour that Pletnev has recorded and performed in Russia but that had never been performed complete in the New York hall's history. The pieces evoke a host of 19th-century composers but also draw on Russian folk elements and even bear traces of Tchaikovsky's love for musical Classicism.

"It is Tchaikovsky's last cycle, written around the time of the Sixth Symphony," Pletnev said by telephone from Lisbon, where he was conducting the Russian National Orchestra, a few days after the recital. Yes, Tchaikovsky's piano music is underrated, he agreed, "but you have to know how to play it. It's very multi-sided -- different from Schubert or purely Romantic composers."

"Multi-sided" is a term no less applicable to Pletnev himself. A native of Arkhangelsk, Pletnev, 47, came to prominence as gold-medal and first-prize winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition. But he also made strides as a conductor and, in 1990, formed the Russian National Orchestra, which he led with distinction as music director and principal conductor until 1999. At that time he became conductor laureate in order to have more time for the piano and still another pursuit, composition.

The question of whether he is happy with the current balance of his activities drew a surprisingly discouraged response. "It is very difficult to continue all three things on a high level. All three are important, but in earlier times it was probably easier. Artists in the 19th century didn't travel so much. They weren't always getting on airplanes to do another tour. Traveling takes energy and is very tiring. I don't know why I do it -- sometimes I surprise myself."

Given his busy schedule as pianist and conductor, it is Pletnev's work as composer that, in all likelihood, suffers most. His most recent work of note is the Viola Concerto, which was given its world premiere by Yury Bashmet in 1998. On the other hand, the departure of his successor, Vladimir Spivakov, as chief conductor of the RNO in 2002 translated into an increase in Pletnev's activities with the orchestra. And although the orchestra lost 31 players to the orchestra Spivakov subsequently formed, the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, Pletnev says the RNO is "in great shape."

And so are his abilities at the keyboard. As the New York Sun said of his Carnegie recital, "Mr. Pletnev was by turns lyrical, emphatic, debonair and bold. This, really, was Romantic piano playing at its best. Mr. Pletnev has a sense of balance, of imagination, of sympathy. He plays like a composer."

In addition to Tchaikovsky, the recital included items from Pletnev's just-released all-Schumann recording from Deutsche Grammophon (with whom he has an exclusive contract). "I'm glad the audience seemed to like [the recital], because it wasn't really a showy program," he said, clearly passing over the formidable difficulties of Robert Schumann's great "Fantasie" in C Major, Op. 17, though his playing of this work made one far more conscious of the score's poetry than of its technical challenges.

When he first played in the United States, he says, he performed a technically flashy program with lots of encores, but this time the emphasis was on "pure, refined, chamber-like music-making. My next recital, in the fall, will be still different, with a stress on musical Classicism -- Bach and Beethoven in addition to Brahms." Even as a pianist, Pletnev defies attempts at categorization.

Yet his playing has common elements that transcend any given repertoire. They can be heard on the Schumann disc and include, above all, a purity of tone allied to a deeply reflective approach to the music. Pletnev's performances have a freshness, a naturalness and an almost improvisatory quality that can make listeners think they're hearing a work, no matter how familiar, for the first time.

Take the famous finale of the Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, which can often sound clangy and hackneyed. Pletnev gives it a graceful, at times even elfin quality. In addition to the Symphonic Etudes and the "Fantasie," the new disc includes Five Album Leaves from Bunte Blatter, Op. 99, and the entrancing Arabesque, Op. 18.

Does he see a difference between audiences in New York and Moscow? "Not really. When I'm performing, I forget about where I'm playing. Despite the different venues -- Moscow, New York, Tokyo -- I feel I'm playing for one nation, a nation of cultivated, educated lovers of classical music spread out over the whole world."