Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Russian National Orchestra concluded its two-concert run for the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony. The concerto soloist was again Yuja Wang, and the conductor was Founder and Artistic Director Mikhail Pletnev. Having seized audience attention on Sunday night with just about every approach to full-barreled bombast, Pletnev could use his second program to demonstrate that his ensemble was just as capable of subtlety and could be just as compelling.
In that respect his concerto selection, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 271 in E-flat major, could not have been more appropriate. Indeed, even for those who have listened to Wang play many times in Davies, this could well have been the first time to encounter her taking on any Mozart concerto. In that frame of reference, it seemed appropriate that she and Pletnev should agree to present what many take to be his earliest significant concerto, written at the age of 21 when Mozart was in his home town of Salzburg between two demanding touring schedules.
No longer viewed by the world as prodigy, Mozart still abounded with youthful spirits; but the “show-off kid” was also beginning to polish his virtuoso displays with a bit more elegance. Since Wang is a bit of a “show-off kid” herself, she knows how to season her virtuoso work with the spice of pizazz; but last night’s performance also clearly established an interpretation in which the seasoning was there to enhance a more fundamental element of grace through which subdued delivery could trump outrageous display. Both the choice of the music and its interpretation emerged almost as a “hangover cure” for the no-holds-barred excesses of Sunday night’s approach to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 44 concerto in G major.
For his part Pletnev provided ideal instrumental support, working with a reduced string section (although it was unclear why the second violin section had two fewer players than the firsts) joined by only two oboes and two horns. With minimal body language he could convey the spritely qualities of the outer movements contrasting with the more introspective Andantino. Most important was the vibrancy of the spirit of conversation between soloist and ensemble, perhaps the most vital quality of eighteenth-century concerto performances.
Once again Wang followed up on her concerto performance with an encore, this time one entirely appropriate to the context of graceful execution that she had established with Pletnev. She played her own take on Art Tatum’s approach to Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two.” Tatum’s capacity for elaborate embellishment rivaled the achievements of Franz Liszt at their most excessive; but all of those embellishments rolled off of Wang’s fingers while, like Tatum himself, she never let go of the tune being embellished.
She then followed with a second encore that many may have expected, an opportunity to listen to her play one of Pletnev’s own arrangements. She selected his treatment of the dance of the four cygnets in the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 20 score for the ballet Swan Lake. This had its own qualities of grace without ever letting keyboard excesses quash the underlying spirit of the dance itself. The result was an elegantly polished “overture” for the second half of last night’s program.
That second half consisted entirely of a suite of selections from the Swan Lake score. The selections were probably Pletnev’s own, since there is no evidence that Tchaikovsky’s himself prepared an “authorized” suite of the source music. The program was not particularly helpful and even the labels seem to have been incorrect, at least in part. Pletnev’s selections even included excerpts omitted from many of the performing versions of the ballet. Nevertheless, the suite, taken as a whole, definitely made for an excellent display of the many rich sonorous qualities of the ensemble. Furthermore, while the second movement of the Opus 44 concerto performed on Sunday night served as an engaging reminder of the ballet’s “White Swan” pas de deux, last night’s performance included an equally engaging account of the original article, complete with the ravishing solo work by concertmaster Alexey Bruni and Principal Cello Alexander Gotgelf. The rich diversity of selections was then followed up by Pletnev’s encore selection, another example of a vigorous character dance, this time the “Dance of the Buffoons” from Tchaikovsky’s Opus 12 collection of incidental music he wrote for The Snow Maiden.
If Mozart provided a striking contrast to Tchaikovsky for a concerto selection, Pletnev chose to open the program with an overture equally striking in the difference from what had been offered on Sunday. The overture was for Robert Schumann’s only opera, his Opus 81 Genoveva. This seldom-performed overture is distinguished by dark qualities that set the tone for the drama to follow. It has a particularly lengthy Langsam introduction, replete with ambiguous dissonances. The “allegro” portion of the overture is marked Leidenschaftlich bewegt (moving passionately); and there is no shortage of fretful rhetoric in its churning rhythms. This may not have been Schumann at his most polished, but Pletnev made a strong case for its arresting rhetorical qualities that definitely deserve more audience exposure.