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Mikhail Pletnev: it’s better to applaud between acts than not to clap at all

Mikhail Pletnev, Russia’s renowned and esteemed pianist and conductor, became a real headliner during the InClassica International Music Festival, which for the first time in its 10-year history was held in Dubai from August 28 to September 26. Although the audience enjoyed all the performers, Pletnev was especially sought after to do encore performances more than anybody else – three times during an evening.

Only on very rare occasions, does Pletnev sit down for an interview. It’s a true miracle that he took a pause between his rehearsals and concerts and agreed to tell TASS about his vision of today’s academic music.

— Mihail Vasilyevich, what’s your impression in general about the InClassica festival?

— Wonderful! Everything was organized just splendidly. I’m very grateful to the organizers that in such a challenging time they are able to give the public harmony and something eternal.

— It caught my eye that the public confidently applauds between the acts of a musical composition. In Moscow’s halls people would shush you for that. What’s your attitude to this?

 It’s better when people applaud between the acts than if they don’t clap at all and don’t come. Earlier, in the good old days, the audience used to applaud at the concerts after each act. Moreover, if they liked the act, they called for a repeat performance.

— During your piano concert it was like this: you played three acts of Alexey Shor’s suite “From my bookshelf” as an encore.

— The difference is that we gave an encore after the entire performance, and at that concert we did this right away.

— After the concert the composer told me that you played your own version of his suite.

— Alexey Shor has become popular in the music world lately. To begin with, he is a globally renowned mathematician. He apparently has had passion for classic music from his childhood. Everything is interconnected: music is close to people, who deal with higher matters: this is a kind of symbol of the universe. Well, everyone understands music without any decoding: people listen to Tchaikovsky in Japan, America and Germany. We tend to love this combination of tones and sounds. It’s a mystery why this is so. Strictly speaking, Shor’s music may have flaws in terms of harmony. But all this is compensated by his real sincerity. He said one day that he writes music for the public. He is a melodist, and being a melodist nowadays is the greatest courage. Everyone can write nonsense, and this is considered good. But no one wants to listen to this. Shor is an independent person, he writes what he wants and what he hears. That’s why his music is so popular.

— During our conversation he was very critical about his own piano playing.

— Well, Schubert did not have any special musical education, and some call him an amateur. There are also a lot of flaws there. But Schubert’s talent and melody appeal to everyone. This is one of the greatest composers.

I adapted Shor’s musical composition because I wanted to use the skills in this music, which I acquired in the conservatory, in order to reveal its key positive features: this music is rich in imagery, melody and character. That’s because this composition depicts different literary characters: Romeo and Juliet, Quasimodo, Cinderella and d'Artagnan.

— Which part did you like the most?

— Well, you know, I began to love them all. The more I got the hang of playing this music, the more sympathy I felt for all these images, and I started to like this music.

— How did the composer react to the reworking?

— I thought that the author would be angry with me that I cut his composition to pieces. And he told me: “Well, I had pictured that this would sound exactly like this.” This is a great compliment for me – probably, I got the essence of the music and expressed it in terms of the texture and the piano. This is normal when a professional performer suggests some things to the composer. So, it was concertmaster of a Leipzig orchestra who gave some clue to Mendelssohn how to write for the violin and Joachim reworked the passages, which Brahms wrote in his genius concert. Rostropovich told me that when writing his Symphony No. 7, Prokofiev asked him to write certain passages, which would be fit for the violoncello. “The Variations on a Rococo Theme” by Tchaikovsky were reworked by cellist Fitzenhagen, who made tremendous changes: he reversed the order of variations, and made other cadences and so on. But this remains the music of Tchaikovsky, although the Tchaikovsky original is played much more rarely.

There is nothing bad in such an interaction between a performer and a composer, on the contrary, this is fruitful and good.

— Will you play this composition in the future?

— Yes, I’m planning to.

— Would you like to somehow “call dibs” on your adaptation of the piece?

— Yes, I would like the composition to become popular. As a result of my work, it seems to me, it’s very rewarding for the piano and for the pianist. The more people play my adaptation, the more pleasant it will be for me.

— What do you think about the concert halls in Dubai?

— They have built a lot of scrapers in Dubai, while paying less attention to the quality of halls. For example, in China they build magnificent concert halls in all villages. Fantastic! You, the press, should better go to the sheikh and ask for building top-quality halls.

— In one of the concerts, you performed as a soloist, and it was Sergey Smbatyan who conducted the orchestra. How do you assess your cooperation?

— ​​​​​Sergey conducts many concerts here. In my opinion, everything was perfectly fine. The way he worked with me and the orchestra, in my opinion, was effective and good.

— ​​​​​​By the way, if the orchestra is concerned. Last season the Russian National Orchestra celebrated its 30th anniversary.

— ​​​​​​Is this a lot?

— In my personal view, this is a significant term.

— ​​​​​​Well, for me this is not quite a lot.

— The orchestra has had a lot of official achievements during this period – both marvelous recordings by the Deutsche Grammophon firm and the Grammy award. And for you personally, what is the key achievement over these past 30 years?

— Just one thing: someone wants to listen to all these recordings. This is a reward for me when someone is interested in and listens to this music. Let it be 500 Grammy awards, but if no one listens to this, all of this nothing. Rachmaninoff did not have any Grammy award, but I don’t know anyone more genius than him.

Interviewed by Anastasiya Silkina