Stravinsky: the Piano Music, Queen's Hall

Michael Tumelty

IN a festival that has contained quite a number of literally extraordinary musical experiences, yesterday afternoon's concert by six young Russian virtuoso pianists - almost four hours long - was, in some ways, the most extraordinary of all.

Playing almost non-stop - apart from one short interval - and following each other on to the stage in relays, the young lions and lionesses of the keyboard managed to get through every significant piece that Stravinsky composed for the piano, including the major adaptations he made himself for keyboard of his large-scale orchestral ballets.

Only two important items were missing from the programme, the Piano Rag Music and the Tango, and even they were added during the course of events.

But, to start at the end, has there ever, in the history of recitals in the Queen's Hall, been a performance like that of The Rite of Spring with which this astonishing display concluded?

Stravinsky arranged it for piano duet. Yesterday, George Vachtnadze and Vakhtang Kodanashvili, the two most physically powerful men in the group, split it between two pianos - one keyboard would not have been enough to contain these two; and using two keyboards also gave them the opportunity to do a bit of doubling, increasing even further the amazing sonorities they produced.

Not only did they produce a sound that almost had your hands over your ears in self-defence, they fully captured the spirit and wildness of the orchestral version. It was mad, bad, and dangerous to hear; it was utterly electrifying, pinning you to your seat. The pale Vachtnadze, on the upper part, got paler and paler with intensity, while, storming away in the engine room with almost incredible pianistic force, Kodanashvili was puce with the effort.

In the other two big ballets, Maxim Mogilevsky swashbuckled his way through Petrushka - not the tidiest version I've ever heard, but this lad knows all about going for it in a live performance - while his wife, the apparently demure and rather poetic 20-year-old Svetlana Smolina showed her teeth and her muscles in a huge performance of one of the most interesting pieces of the long afternoon: a very rare outing for a one-piano arrangement made by Stravinsky, strictly for rehearsal purposes, of a suite from The Firebird.

Earlier, Mogilevsky and Vachtnadze - the two lads who'd won a Herald Angel on Saturday for their heroic eleventh-hour rescue of a concert where another artist had cancelled - gave a thunderous and strictly anti-classical account of the Concerto for Two Pianos. Stravinsky wanted this one bone-dry and devoid of emotion. Yesterday he swirled in his grave as these two gave it the full-blooded treatment (which it withstands without protest).

That attitude - the humanising of the machine - seemed in fact to represent the criterion of the afternoon. Everything brimmed with vigour, life, vitality, and wit, barnstormingly delivered by the class of '97: Ivana Bukvich and Tea Lomdaridze flowing, lyrical and, expressive in the Sonata for Two Pianos, Svetlana Smolina in arch-Romantic form for the Four Studies, and Kodanashvili and Lomdaridze barnstorming through the early F sharp minor Sonata.

At the end all six - disciples of the grand master, the unorthodox Indiana-based Russian pianist, Alexander Toradze - trooped on to share the ovation. They summoned the godfather, and on he came kissing them all, electing Mogilevsky to play the Tango as an encore while the others all stood and listened.

They're all from the Toradze mould: physical strength and no holds barred at the keyboard. It's highly controversial, but, my God, you know you're alive listening to this highly volatile bunch. A memorable visit.


Mikhail Pletnev, Queen's Hall

Conrad Wilson

The member of the audience who stepped forward to ask for Mikhail Pletnev's autograph while he was still on the platform summed up the euphoria of the occasion. This was a rousing recital, radically rethinking three standard masterpieces of the piano repertoire, and offering them to a packed house on Saturday morning as both a challenge and an excitement.

For most people, it seemed, it was an excitement, but the challenge was there too. The Russian pianist's teasing account of Beethoven's early A major Sonata (Op 2 number 2) are caught in the improvisatory nature of the music by emphasising its sudden, sharp contrasts, its pauses and silences. To some ears, it might all have seemed a bit too jerky and unsettled, but pianists who smooth over these aspects of Beethoven are missing one of the ingredients of his personality.

More arguable, perhaps, was his way of accentuating the opening note of a theme, with the insertion of a tiny delay before the second note.

In the Beethoven, it justified itself by appearing to be one more element of the music's - and not merely the performer's - ability to tease, but by the time it reappeared in Chopin's B minor Sonata it had come to sound like a mannerism.

Mannerisms, however, were surely the least of the audience's points of interests in a recital that included so sonorous a statement of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and so probing an investigation of the Chopin, which was turned into a powerful study in darkness and light.

Halfway through the first movement, the music seemed, in an extraordinary act of deconstruction, to be veering towards atonality. The scherzo was filled with glinting, fractured rhythms, the entire performance, like the rest of the recital, possessing its own fierce, quirky integrity.


Rotterdam Philharmonic, Usher Hall

Michael Tumelty

SOMETIMES there is one single feature that, either by its absence or presence, completely characterises a musical interpretation, and thus either makes or breaks a performance.

On Saturday night, in the second concert given by Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, there were two such features that typified the performances of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Mahler's song-symphony, Das Lied von der Erde: lightness and subtlety. And both, alas, were completely absent.

Not that this necessarily damaged the Schubert, where, in a scrupulously organised performance - every melodic line seamlessly ironed, every accent thuddingly exact - Gergiev substituted for these characteristics sheer weight of texture, emotional gravitas, and a meticulous quality of deliberateness that gave this vast reading of the two-movement work an unshakeable consistency.

But no amount of consistency in Mahler's great Song of the Earth could have compensated for the ditching of lightness and subtlety that left this account, despite the best efforts of its singers, tenor Ben Heppner and, especially, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, fatally flawed.

The problems lay absolutely in Gergiev's realisation of the orchestral score. Intimacy is the key to the work, said the programme note, accurately. And that's principally where it all went wrong. Mahler's infinitely expressive, achingly evocative, exquisite traceries of orchestral texture were graphically, luridly, and ruthlessly chiselled, leaving scarcely an ounce of suggestive atmosphere.

And even if you didn't find that offensive, Gergiev's inexplicable tendency to direct Das Lied as though it was an exclusively instrumental score, on more than one occasion leaving the singers behind, and overwhelming their voices with sheer orchestral volume, sealed its fate. Deeply disappointing.


An Taigh Ceilidh,

Queen's Hall

Rob Adams

Before the term ''ceilidh'' was hijacked to convey a robustly musical means of meeting exciting new people and birlin' them aboot the room, it described a much more sedate and practical get-together where knitting would be done and nets mended to musical accompaniment.

No socks got run up at the Song of the Gael's Ceilidh House, although some momentarily incautious birlin nearly put Ishbel MacAskill aff the stage, but an atmosphere of spontaneity and closeness was successfully created by hosts Simon Mackenzie and Dolina MacLennan, with some welcoming and informative words. Even if the furnished stage did look suspiciously like Lewis's window.

Around this stage, however, sat singing talent that would grace any platform: from the deep, compelling vigour of Murdo MacDonald to the sweet, affecting love songs of Christine Primrose; and from MacAskill's extraordinary sense of permanence (on, of all appropriate things, a celebration of the sea as life's one constant) to Rona Lightfoot's mischievous puirt a beul about bickering rival bardesses.

Between the songs came tunes from button-boxmeister Fergie MacDonald, whose playing induced such an outbreak of enthusiastic clapping along that you could barely hear what was being clapped along to, and step dancing sleight of foot from Mairi Campbell.

As well as joining in the band, fiddler Farquhar MacRae contributed a softly intense and soulful slow air that reeked of the piping tradition and ''learned a tune on the spot'' from Lightfoot's canntaireachd, or hey diddle diddling of the melody piper-style. And although one suspected that he and the tune were already pretty well acquainted, it all added to the evening's spirit of authenticity.