Grand master – an interview with Mikhail Pletnev

by Derek Lim

This interview appeared originally in Time Out Singapore.

Interviews with the famous Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev are a tricky affair. Notorious for not granting them at all, he relented when approached by Time Out Singapore, only to then set down his own rules. He doesn’t do interviews by phone, so his answers to our emailed questions were first recorded on Dictaphone, then transcribed by his secretary and sent by fax to his agents in Singapore. This behaviour might be considered curiously eccentric to some, yet it speaks volumes of the man – used to getting things done his way – who will conduct his magnificent Russian National Orchestra (RNO) in a series of three concerts in the first Sun Festival in Singapore.

Still, with a résumé like his, who can blame him? Though he just turned 50 in April, he’s already collected enough achievements to last a lifetime. In 1978, at age 21, he rose to the top of his game, winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, gaining him early international fame. This led to a meeting with then-president Mikhail Gorbachev at a world-leader conference, where Pletnev had been invited to play. Two years later, this friendship helped him snag the best players from the top Russian ensembles to form the elite RNO, the first orchestra independent of the Russian government for funding. In 1998, he was one of few living pianists whose recordings were included in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century CD collection. In 2002, President Vladimir Putin awarded him Russia’s First State Prize for his services to music.

Pletnev is elusively charming but strangely cool, even cold, in interview. It’s no surprise, then, that his piano playing is often interpreted as icily intellectual. Of late, his recitals have been critiqued as inquisitive in his exploration of ideas, stretching them to perverse distortion – cool to the point of being alienating, though never boring and with his distinctively wide range of colours. He brings these same qualities to the baton. His recording of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s heart-rending ‘Pathétique’ symphony, for example, has a stoicism worthy of German conductor Otto Klemperer. It remains one of the best examples of the objective style, combining poise and elegance, where others milk it for maximum emotional punch.

Being Russian, it’s not surprising that he’s found an affinity with his countryman. ‘Tchaikovsky is my compatriot, and I think his music is very close to everyone’s heart in Russia,’ says Pletnev. ‘His music possesses a wide spectrum of human emotions and nuances. It’s quite spontaneous at first sight, but tremendously difficult for a performer as there are many different emotions inside it. It’s very easy to go beyond the limits of good taste, to remain sincere. Whoever performs Tchaikovsky must have a very keen sense of style.’ At the festival, Pletnev will conduct his far more cheerful ‘Rococo Variations’, with guest cellist Nina Kotova, as well as the ‘Pathétique’ symphony.

When Tchaikovsky died from allegedly self-administered cholera six days after the premiere of the ‘Pathétique’ symphony, he was only 53. For Pletnev, turning 50 is less of a milestone than an occasion for reflection. ‘It’s a sad feeling. Actually I have these anniversary dates, and this birthday brought me sadness rather than joy. I didn’t want to celebrate it at first, I wanted to go away, but then they persuaded me that it’s wiser to stay in Moscow and suffer the anniversary concert here,’ he says. This is the only ripple in his veneer of cool collectedness.

Birthday blues aside, it’s been a productive year for the great pianist. He’s been busy recording Beethoven, completing only recently all nine symphonies and five piano concertos in Moscow with the RNO. Austrian conductor Christian Gansch waved the baton for the concertos, but the sound of the orchestra was shaped according to Pletnev’s wishes, of course.

Pletnev speaks of Beethoven with passion. ‘In one of Beethoven’s letters, he says that music should strike fire from people’s hearts,’ he says. ‘I dislike it when musicians approach his works as they might a monument or mausoleum. He was a very impulsive man. He had some other qualities – a fiery temperament, even wildness.’

Music lovers will remember his well received series of performances of the complete Beethoven concertos that he played with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but this time around his place will be firmly on the podium, where he will accompany distinguished colleagues violinist Pinchas Zukerman, pianist Piotr Anderszewski and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (see ‘Sweet and low’), among others.

Ever the perfectionist, Pletnev tells us his plans for the future. ‘I am devoting my time to work with the RNO to improve the quality of playing,’ he says. ‘When I listen to our past recordings, many things I would do much better now. I see lots of my own mistakes, which I want to correct.’ We can be sure his orchestra will be all ears.

Pletnev conducts the RNO on 24, 27 & 28 Oct.

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