Although nominally a Polish Festival celebrating the music of Frédéric Chopin, there was lots of Tchaikovsky on offer at this year’s event. Leading the foreign charge was the Russian National Orchestra under the direction of their mercurial maestro Mikhail Pletnev.

Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra © RNO
Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
© RNO

The choice of what is probably the least familiar of the Tchaikovsky symphonies (“The Polish”) coupled with the Second Piano Concerto was irresistible to local Tchaikovsky lovers. The lynchpin to the programming was Russian-born wunderkind, Pletnev. A celebrated pianist in his own right and winner of the Tchaikovsky Piano competition in 1978, Pletnev has followed the careers of not only Nikolai Rubenstein and Franz Liszt in the past but more recently Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy in hopping from piano to podium.

Rumour has it that Sviatoslav Richter once asked “why does Pletnev look so unhappy?” but it is more a sense of casual ennui which characterizes his appearance on stage. Or perhaps he is that rare kind of artist, an actual introvert. Pletnev once remarked “I am not playing for the audience, I am playing for myself”.

The piano concerto made up the first half of the programme. In mastering the diabolical technical difficulties of this bravura work, young Lithuanian-Russian soloist Lukas Geniušas displayed impressive pianistic dexterity. Unfortunately, apart from the elegiac second movement, which is in essence an extended piano trio (memorable on this occasion for some superb solo cello playing) Geniušas seemed to lack any real depth or understanding of the concerto as a whole. Admittedly there is hardly room for intellectual profundity in the frenetic final movement, but an overall sense of shape and balance was generally lacking. There was also an excessive use of the sustain pedal, particularly during the double octave passages in the molto vivace section of the first movement which seemed strange as Geniušas certainly has ample technical skills not to require any aural fudging.

It must be quite a handicap for a concert pianist to have such an immodest name as “Geniušas” (even with Vera Gornostayeva as a grandmother) but this young Lithuanian is certainly not a pianist of the imperious Pogorelich kind. In fact this rather serious young man seemed more in a trance-like state of absolute absorption through much of the work, especially during the second movement. If Pletnev was detached, or even seemingly disinterested, young Geniušas was off on some “Zen for Piano Players” outer orbit. Hunched over the keyboard, his glance rarely left the ivories, and only then to take a quick peek at what Pletnev was doing.

The critical Polish audience seemed impressed however and Geniušas received an enthusiastic, although not exactly ecstatic reception. This occasioned two encores by Chopin – the quietly reflective Mazurka in F minor Op.63 (well played) and the Gatling-gun fireworks of the Waltz in F major Op.34 which again showed an extraordinary nimble technique but limited musicality.

The second half was definitely all Pletnev and his remarkable Russian National Orchestra playing music they clearly cherish. There is an aura of severe, almost stoic intellectual calm about Pletnev’s conducting. He has an exceptionally circumspect and minimalist baton technique which, despite its very lack of demonstrability, produced extraordinary results from an orchestra which was essentially hand-picked by the maestro himself. Whilst this ensemble lacks the traditions of the St Petersburg Philharmonic or Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky, the Russian National Orchestra (only formed in 1990) produced some really wonderful sounds. It seems that Russian string players are inherently adept at playing Tchaikovsky’s orgasmic soaring violin cadences with a unique blend of passion and precision. The first violins and cellos in this instance more than justified the hyperbole.

The exquisitely lyrical D major theme taken up by first and second violins under punctuating triplets in the third movement of the symphony was such an example. In contrast, the delicacy with which not only strings but also woodwinds played the echoing elfish sixteenth note rolling scales in the fourth movement Scherzo showed a lightness of technique of the highest order. The rhythmic intensity and explosive fff double-stopping tutti in the climactic conclusion of the symphony was so perfectly polacca you could almost smell the Žubróvka.  

Pletnev has been quoted as saying “I hate my recordings”. On this occasion he may be happy to have a memory of a performance which after a flamboyant encore of the ‘Hopak Dance’ from Mazeppa, brought the audience to their feet, cheering the Russians to the rafters.