Sibelius: Pelléas and Mélisande,Violin Concerto; Beethoven: Symphony No.6 'Pastorale'

Gidon Kremer, Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev

Festpielhaus Baden-Baden, 21 April 20085 stars

Mikhail Pletnev (Photo: Eduard Levin)It would take the multilingual erudition as a master of musical aesthetics of a Gidon Kremer or a Mikhail Pletnev, turning his visions into magic performances as a virtuoso and conductor, adequately to find words to describe this concert. These two stars, so unwilling to play the role of stars, joined forces to present Sibelius at his most inward-looking and Beethoven's 'Pastorale' with a new glow of gentle humanity. This humble reviewer can only bow in gratitude for such an unforgettable experience.

The full orchestral suite Pelléas and Mélisande by Sibelius is rarely included in the repertory of great orchestras. A pity, because it contains the essence of the brooding melancholy of this composer, coupled with meltingly romantic themes, without being burdened with his often ponderous longeurs. Its brilliant orchestration allowed all the principals of the Russian National Orchestra to demonstrate a delicacy and deep emotional involvement, without being egged on by a meddling Kapellmeister.

Indeed, the work of Mikhail Pletnev - who founded this orchestra almost 20 years ago without any help from the Soviet government at that time still wallowing in its Breshnevian stupour - all seems to get done before the performances. His vision, his radical removal of the barnacles attached by tradition to the conventional interpretations of his large repertoire, is firmly implanted on every member of his orchestra. Because the orchestra is exclusively privately funded and assisted by foundations located in the USA and the UK, it employs in all sections the finest talents now available in Russia, without interference from vested interests of the old guard. Perhaps as many as two thirds of the members are in their twenties or early thirties and Pletnev needs not cajole or drive them by ostentatious body language to produce a superbly homogenous sound: supple and eloquent in its winds, robust and brazen in its brass sections, and virtuosic throughout its strings. Their two principal cellists are amongst the few more mature members, one of them looking remarkably like a formally dressed Misha Maisky; their playing, beautifully co-ordinated and constantly fully engaged, was a pleasure to watch. Even their timpanist rose somtimes in ferocious temper or subtly caressed his instruments. I cannot recall a more beautifully performed horn solo in the dangerously exposed allegro of the 'Pastorale' - only one of many memorable solos from all sections.

In all three works on the programme, there were many opportunities to show how a full-blown orchestral sound can be both majestic and warmly burnished, or how the musicians were able subtely to tiptoe their way through the intricate scoring of the the allegro of the 'Pastorale'. Pletnev is well known to eschew all star-like superficialities. His elbows are mostly kept near his body and he conducts with minute flicks of his baton, just turning to the sections he wants to be heard more prominently. In solo passages, or even in fast tutti sections, he often stops using his baton altogether and allows complete freedom to the orchestra. In accompanying Gidon Kremer in Sibelius's Violin Concerto, he totally accommodated Kremer's intimate vision and scaled down the orchestral outburts to match the soloist's deeply private conception of the piece.

Gidon KremerI happen to have played as a student in the orchestra accompanying a brave and very talented masterclass student of Jeno Hubay daring to play the Sibelius, a mere twenty years after it was first performed and long before Heifetz established the yardsticks by which peformances are still measured. In those years, the technical difficulties could be mastered only by very few performers and at speeds that by today's standards seem sluggish. Even Ferenc Vecsey, the dedicatee of the concerto, whose career as the leading virtuoso of the age was cut short by his early death, could not adequately cope with the extraodinary technical demands of the work.

For Kremer, and for so many of the superb virtuosos of our age, technical difficulties do not seem to matter any longer. Yet Kremer brings to this work an almost philosophical detachment, away from the superficial glories of the concerto he makes it a vehicle of an intimate confession, hardly allowed to be shared by an audience. The very first bars are played with an ethereal and melancholy gentleness that leaves its mark on the rest. In the last movement Kremer displayed a virtuosity that ennobled the mere fireworks of harmonic doublestops, acrobatic leaps, upbow crossstrings, spiccato runs - and all this at a bracingly pulsating tempo. At one point near then end, his E string broke under his strident bowing. Without a moment's hesitation, he picked up the violin of the player sitting just behind him, and continued to play the fiendish passages as if nothing had happened.

Beethoven's Sixth is perhaps the best loved of his symphonies, but in the course of 200 years it has become corseted into traditions which even great interpreters hesitate to ignore. Pletnev has the stature to do so. The very first twelve bars are phrased and played at speeds that are utterly new and, to me, were a revelation. We've all heard this work innumerable times and all interprations seem to have differed only in minute details, depending on the brilliance or lack of it of the performing orchestras. Pletnev challenged all this. His recent recordings of all the nine Beethoven symphonies with his orchestra are acknowledged by critics as opening our ears to entirely new aspects and motivations of these works. It was this diversity, this searching and finding completely new subtleties in phrasing, counterpoint and colours of orchestration, that made me sit up in wonderment and delight.

I must be forgiven for perhaps being overenthusiastic about a mere orchestral concert. However, there was more in this for me than just a an enjoyable way of passing an evening. I learnt, towards the end of my own; musical life, that we must not take traditional interpretations for granted and when we put ourselves in the hands of masters like a Mikhail Pletnev or a Gidon Kremer, an entire new world can yet open in our jaded ears.

By Francis Shelton