Russian National Orchestra
December 1, 2003

Beyond Borders

Posted with permission from International Piano Magazine. For more information please visit their site, http://www.pianomagazine.com/

 

International Piano Magazine
November / December 2003

 

In a rare and exclusive interview, Mikhail Pletnev talks to Lynnda Greene about one of the musical phenomenons of modern times

Surely no pianist on the circuit today has invited such disparate observations from the media as Mikhail Pletnev. Indeed, some writers, perhaps flummoxed by this most private of artists, have so enjoyed parodying every personal gesture and artistic peculiarity that we're barely able to discern between character and caricature. As rendered by their leagues, he is by turns the difficult, diabolical genius infamous for devouring writers alive; the icy mastermind of superhuman technical power, provocative emotional range and daredevil cheek; the infuriating antagonist of the Urtext - a quixotic figure embellished with the now standard references to the chain-smoked cigarettes, the pallbearer walk, the bloodhound stoicism, the impenetrable gloom on the inscrutable gravitas features. Such, we are told, is the magnificent conundrum that is Russia's finest pianist.

But on a blustery afternoon last March in New York City's Steinway Hall, where he has been practising for a recital the following evening, Pletnev seems none of the above. In fact, one suspects the maestro has developed a certain modus operandi that, honed over years, he deploys on select journalistic occasions entirely for reportorial consumption. This is not one of them. Hesitant and tired from two long flights in recent days, he brightens when his American manager, also a good friend, shows up unexpectedly to make an impromptu threesome. It's said Russians like best to talk over a kitchen table, not easy to find in Midtown Manhattan, but we make do with a secluded booth in a tony dive across 57th Street where serendipity is the day's speciality; there will be no agenda, no questions, no tape recorder. What follows over the next two hours is not an interview but an easeful flowering, genus glasnost.

Talk wanders over any number of topics; Pletnev ('Plet-ny-off') considers each thoughtfully in sidelong musings before speaking in slow, measured phrases. Colleagues (to whom he is 'Misha') relate that 'in a mood' he is a droll story-teller of faultless timing, and a wicked wit. An intellect of lapidary clarity, catholic curiosity and linguistic flexibility (he is fluent in, at last count, a dozen languages), he rarely flaunts it; references to philosophers and poets bob along in the general current of conversation that pauses to eddy in world politics, economics, history, travel, technology and skiing. At 46, he presents as one who has seen much and pondered more, but always he is, as now, articulate, reflective, and ever ready with a silver-tipped quip.

Today he's concerned about a painful index finger he injured some months ago in a fall playing badminton, at which he is, by all accounts, a formidable opponent. 'All this dead weight of this old man - on my finger!' he jokes. Talk of his childhood home in Kazan, where he swam in the Volga, leads to Ivanovka, the now restored country estate of Sergei Rachmaninoff, whom he particularly admires as a musician and a man. As he ticks off all the great pianists of the last 100 years who revered this artist above all, one admires anew this perhaps uniquely Russian sense of homage for artistic forbears, something lacking elsewhere, he thinks. 'This is what I don't understand about America,' he complains of Rachmaninoff's life in the US. 'So little is preserved; no one filmed him playing, even, and he lived here for 25 years!'

If those we esteem can shape our lives, then surely Rachmaninoff has infused Pletnev's to an uncanny degree. As men and artists they share many traits in common; each is an enigma and a paradox. Both men's lives took radical turns during the upheavals of their country, Rachmaninoff's at the beginning of a cruel and violent regime, Pletnev's at its ending 70 years later. Both joined music history's rarified pantheon of multi-career musicians - as pianists, conductors, and composers - while still young men. But Pletnev has surpassed his role model by daring what Rachmaninoff never attempted: the building of an orchestra.

As Rachmaninoff most truly revealed himself through his music and his pianism, so too does Pletnev bare his celebrated 'inscrutable' self through his pianism and his greatest joy, the Russian National Orchestra, created thirteen years ago as the Soviet Union underwent cataclysmic change. In a modern classical world, rife with reports of under-funded and dying ensembles, curtailed schedules and shrinking audiences, the foundation and continued growth of this extraordinary group seems not only miraculous; it just may be the most important cultural story of our time. And this afternoon, Pletnev seems intent on telling it.

He had dreamed of a Russian orchestra independent of state control, free to play any repertoire, he says, from student days, and by the time of Gorbachev's ascendancy to power in the late 1980s the idea had spread throughout Moscow's musical community. 'It was a time of great hope,' he says, and explains that under the Soviet system, the individuality necessary to become an artist had been suppressed for so long that some of the best and most motivated musicians in Moscow, many of them soloists, also longed for change. In the old days musicians had secure jobs in state-controlled orchestras, but they were required to play Tchaikovsky hundreds of times, when and where they were told, with little opportunity for artistic growth. The desire to create a new, autonomous orchestra had also floated quietly among musicians for some years; what they needed was a conductor.

Though Pletnev had enjoyed an active career and star status in his own country ever since winning the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition at the age of 21, his career in the West was largely curtailed once the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980. He conducted only occasionally with unimportant orchestras in the USSR, for that was the way of the old system: a gifted artist might announce his desire to conduct and then wait 25 years before the Ministry of Culture would offer him a chance. It was all politics, all anathema to Pletnev, and yet it was this very lack of political baggage that made him attractive to Russia's top musicians - that and his profound musicianship.

But Pletnev did not mastermind the orchestra, as has so often been written. 'I did not make one phone call,' he insists. 'The musicians came to me and asked me to do this. At first I said no, because I did not think the time was right yet.' After all, who knew if Gorbachev could maintain power and perestroika continue? But they persisted, urging him to take up a role seemingly against his nature - leadership. He revealed the idea to Gorbachev, who readily gave his personal approval, though no political or financial support. This blessing was crucial, Pletnev says, because without it the group would not have been able to overcome the vigorous counteraction of the bureaucracies within the Ministry of Culture. 'He made it possible to try.'

The group came together over several months, though Pletnev did not raid other Russian orchestras for the best players. He didn't need to. Serious musicians were known throughout Moscow, he explains, and when word got around that spring of 1990, the best and bravest of the city's two dozen state orchestras willingly left stable jobs to follow what was then little more than a fantastical idea. 'Imagine,' he grins, waxing impish. 'Musician goes home to wife and three kids and says, "My darling, I am leaving my job to go with a young, not-yet-established conductor, who is starting a new orchestra." "Wonderful! And do you have concerts?" "No." "Instruments?" "No." "Scores?" "No." "Salary" "No." So things are not good at home!'

Truly, he could offer them nothing but a dream: the creation of the first independent Russian orchestra since 1917, and the chance to make music in artistic freedom. They lacked everything Western orchestras take for granted: a board of directors, administrators, promotions manager, accountants, sponsors, not to mention instruments, concert clothes, scores, a rehearsal hall, an office, even a fax. None even understood how this mysterious 'free enterprise' actually worked.

But as the old Socialist constructs exploded and Russian life descended into political, social, and economic turmoil, these intrepid musicians gave up all vestiges of security to form a new, independent orchestra, the first to include 'Russia' in its name. Though Pletnev found a little help from a Moscow pop concert presenter and two local banks, he learned in the churning post-collapse monetary whirlpool not to count on anyone for very long. 'I'd meet some guy who said he would have ten million dollars for the orchestra next week, so I buy six double basses,' he recalls, 'but then next week he has no 10 million dollars.' He shrugs. What he doesn't mention is that he also took out a huge personal loan, and over time would invest literally all his personal savings in this unlikely venture that had every probability of failing.

The fledgling orchestra gave their first concert on 16 November 1990 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, after only two weeks of rehearsal in a rented discotheque. Simon Foster, then Managing Director for Virgin Classics, had flown to the city specifically for this event; he'd known Pletnev since 1987 when he recorded him in keyboard works by Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. 'I knew when I heard him play in Eastern Europe he was going to be the great pianist of our time,' he recalls in a phone interview from London last May. 'And I knew he would be a great conductor too. Of course that first RNO concert, which included Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony and Marche Slave, was the most phenomenal thing I'd ever heard, and I offered them a contract on the spot.'

But how to sign it? The old way was to go through the Ministry of Culture, which had always arranged such contracts and pocketed most or all the money. Pletnev would have none of that, but knew no alternative either; the only lawyer in Russia then was a Kalashnikov. He began to ask among friends, and as the result of a series of fortuitous phone calls from Moscow to Paris to New York and San Francisco, American entertainment attorney Richard Walker found himself asked to do a favour: would he draw up a contract, gratis, for this unknown Russian orchestra? 'I did it in six hours and then learned they only had a teletype machine,' Walker recalls when I meet him last summer in California where he serves as the RNO's international manager. 'I thought that would be the end of it, but those six hours have become twelve incredible years.'

Foster flew the orchestra to London in March of 1991 to record the 'Pathetique' Symphony and Marche Slave in Blackheath Hall. 'Many hadn't been in the West before, and on the first morning half of them showed up in concert dress, not realising this wasn't necessary to record,' he says. 'Some of the brass didn't show up, so I had to rearrange the schedule until it was discovered that they were waiting at a brass instruments shop some miles away in London. They'd hoped to buy decent trumpets with their per diem cash, but not reading English didn't know it wouldn't open for hours! That the results of our sessions were so astonishing despite some poor instruments speaks not only of their immense talent, but also of their feeling for Pletnev.'

'But there was something else too,' says Andrew Keener, producer on that recording, as well as Pletnev's piano releases for Virgin. 'They were virtuosos, obviously,' he muses over the phone from London. 'But there was a certain homespun quality about them too; it was an innocence, an absence of attitude. It was as if they didn't know how great they were.'

Critics leapt out of their skins. 'Should human beings be able to play like this?' swooned Gramophone magazine of that Pathetique upon release a few months later. But though the recording generated a good buzz, Pletnev knew they needed to tour abroad to earn hard currency, and soon Walker got another phone call from Moscow: could he please find them some concerts? Right away? 'I knew nothing about booking concerts,' he laughs now, 'but then neither did they, so I plunged in and managed to find them a few dates in Italy and Spain that summer and autumn of 1991.' He flew to Sicily to meet the musicians for the first time in August and was instantly smitten. 'I found them rehearsing in a grove of trees and the sound was like nothing I'd heard before - so perfect, so right. I knew this was something extraordinary.' Three days and several long walks later, Pletnev asked him to work with them in an official capacity, and somehow Walker talked his law firm into underwriting his services.

'There was a lot of interest in this strange new country,' he points out. 'The world was trying to understand "what is Russia?", and here was this orchestra offering a face, a voice, so timing could not have been better for a gesture of corporate goodwill.' But the RNO's needs were so great in those early years that we were working sixteen-hour days in survival mode and it was never enough. Friends told me to let it go, but I couldn't walk away.'

Thus began an ongoing pas de deux of challenge and triumph. Walker and Pletnev worked tirelessly to keep the group alive and performing through the chaotic social upheaval of the new Russia's early days. The musicians had to earn enough money to live on, and initially they did not, a fact that concerned Pletnev deeply. 'I was on the phone all day trying to find money, instruments, everything,' Pletnev says, 'and playing my own concerts at night.' Pianist Ivo Pogorelich, a long-time friend, stepped in the first year and brought them along for his concert dates, as Pletnev enjoys relating. 'He would call up a presenter and say, "I will come to play next week. Oh, and by the way, I'm bringing an orchestra, okay?" But they let us come.'

The orchestra was not yet a year old when all Gorbachev had accomplished was threatened by the coup of August 1991. 'We did not know if we could go on if he went down,' Pletnev says. But that October they became the first Russian orchestra to play in Rome for the Pope at the Vatican, and later in Israel. Boris Yeltsin hailed the RNO as the new country's bright shining cultural star once he came to power, but his endorsement proved problematic when he faced overthrow by post-Soviet hardliners in the tumultuous days of October 1993. These musicians had, after all, bucked the old system, and even though the administration survived, the RNO had few friends among the cultural apparatchiks and would garner no governmental support.

They continued to blaze a new and uneasy path in a country where Western concepts of business and self-determination were still ill-understood. Sacrifice and corner-cutting they already knew; the musicians rehearsed long hours, earning but a pittance. Pletnev himself bought instruments and paid airfare for the entire group so they could play for the Pope, and he conducted them for years taking little or no fee for himself. Their efforts paid off: by 1994 they'd secured an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Soon their artistic excellence, spectacularly acclaimed recordings and touring won them enthusiastic audiences and loyal supporters both at home and abroad, but always against every odd in a country flailing in the maelstrom of post-Soviet upheaval.

'As the RNO succeeds, so will Russia,' declared one deputy prime minister in the mid-1990s, and indeed the orchestra seemed not only to mirror the profound societal changes taking place around it, but to keep one step ahead of the pace of reform. Walker set up the new orchestra to act and function as a non-profit organisation, complete with a board of trustees, two years before Russia had enacted a non-profit statute, and then established the Russian Arts Foundation in the US and the UK to secure Western support. Though Walker had no previous experience in fundraising and development, he put together a team that would over time assemble a stellar array of supporters from the US, Europe, Asia and Russia. Their ranks are impressive, and include such companies as American Express, Ernst & Young, ExxonMobil, Daimler-Chrysler, BP, ChevronTexaco, JT International and Cargill, and luminaries including Sir Edward Heath, Helmut Schmidt, Gordon Getty, the Rothschild, Hearst and Heinz families, Helen Walton, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Sophia Loren, to name but a few. Patrons in the West and in Russia have joined together in pursuit of one common goal: the success of the RNO, which has become perhaps the first truly international orchestra.

Sergei Markov, who has served as the RNO's chief executive since 1994 and seen them through countless challenges, is philosophical about it all. 'The RNO was destined to be born and to survive,' he says in a phone conversation last June. A career diplomat, he was working in the Russian embassy in Mexico City when Walker phoned him in 1993 to arrange concerts there. Surprised to hear about a Russian orchestra from an American, he too was quickly drawn in and eventually left the diplomatic corps to shepherd the orchestra in Moscow. Though a music lover, he had no experience in artistic management and like everyone else, had to hit the ground running - literally.

'It was a dangerous time,' he explains. 'The system exploded, debris flew in all directions, and everybody did what they wanted. We had to move our office five times in eight years. This was not grabbing, everybody lived like this.' Inflation, crime, poverty, disillusionment; the Russian people suffered to breaking point as they struggled to build a country with no borders, no army, no customs, no property rights, no banking system, no clear idea of citizenship, and yet somehow the RNO not only survived but achieved ever increasing critical acclaim. An oft-told but true story relates how in the early days things were so tight the musicians had only one pencil between them to mark scores. Markov points out that any of them could have left for the West where they could get good jobs. 'But these musicians made the choice to stay in Russia and do something to bring beauty to this country during a time of ugliness.'

They still do. Over thirteen years few have decamped even though salaries and budget remain light years behind Western norms. 'The principals now make about $1500 a month,' says Markov, who manages an office staff of fifteen. 'This is not enough to support families, so many of them teach too, which is good because it continues the tradition. Pletnev and the musicians feel strongly that it is important for Russian artists to stay here and pass the heritage on. But the cost of living is rising fast in Moscow, and this is a great challenge. Every time we think we make ends meet then life challenges us again and we must pay the musicians more because they need more to live.' They give about 20 concerts a year in Moscow, but these are essentially money-losers as Russians cannot afford the higher ticket prices typical in the West, and it costs more to rent the hall than sales bring in. Touring abroad, which they do six to seven weeks per year, remains essential.

It may seem the height of ironiya that this superb Russian treasure, so endeared of audiences around the world for its incomparable artistry, depends significantly upon the support of the West. The greater irony, though, is that the RNO tours so little compared with the state orchestras subsidised by the Ministry of Culture. 'Here is ironiya,' observes Markov. 'Western support enables the RNO to stay home and play for Russians, while the Russian government subsidises state orchestras to take Russian culture out of the country!' The paradox has not been lost upon the greater musical community. The RNO's talent, integrity and sheer guts clearly attract people with a deep sense of social mission as well as camaraderie; 'star' artists often happily reduce or forego their fees for the opportunity to play with this group.

Pletnev, however, had the crucial factor: a quiet leadership inspiring a curious empathic alchemy Tchaikovsky called simpatichny. Ask the musicians why they joined this group, and why they've stayed, and they'll answer in one word: 'Pletnev'.

As the afternoon wears on, he pulls out of his jacket pocket lists of things he wants to buy or do for friends while he's in the city: a software programme, a special cell phone device, a videotape of a promising dancer he wants to get to Baryshnikov. That's him, associates say, it's always about others, which may be why the strain of those hectic years of 'parenting' the orchestra has taken a toll. 'I don't know myself anymore,' he remarked during an especially exhausting tour some years ago. 'I cannot reproduce myself day after day like this; it contradicts my idea of music making.'

In need of a break and hoping to achieve a better artistic balance, he stepped aside as Music Director in 2000 to become Conductor Laureate, by which role he would continue to conduct the RNO for projects he selects. At the same time he established a unique Conductor Collegium, a group of internationally renowned conductors whose vision and special rapport with the musicians shapes tour and recording strategies. The conductors presently working with the RNO include Kent Nagano, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paavo Berglund, Christian Gansch, Alexander Vedernikov, Vladimir Jurowski, Leonard Slatkin, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Vladimir Spivakov, among others. Current plans with PentaTone Classics, with which the orchestra recently signed a multi-year recording contract, call for five Super Audio recordings per year featuring members of the RNO Conductor Collegium. (The orchestra also maintains a recording relationship with DG.) The Collegium arrangement has enabled Pletnev to increase the number of piano engagements considerably; next year they will account for about two thirds of his 80 concerts. Another major shift has been his residence. Increasingly dismayed with the ongoing socio-political difficulties in Russia, he now spends more time in homes in Switzerland and Thailand, where he can better focus on the piano, composing and his many other interests when he's not touring.

Rachmaninoff felt similarly about his homeland in 1917 when it exploded in revolution, and chose painful exile rather than a compromised existence under Communism. Born in Novgorod in 1873, he stood Janus-like between the old Russia of Tchaikovsky and Glinka, and the new Russia of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, yet it was to the former that he always looked. Though he lived well into the modern age, he was never a modern man and has generally been considered a 19th-century composer. Pletnev, born in Arkhangelsk in 1957, likewise looks back in sentiment and philosophy to that earlier cultural flowering. And though the parallels between the two men may seem a little too uncanny, they are also instructive; each man reflects characteristics of the other, and a sensibility and musicianship now rare.

Certainly for Pletnev, the artistic personality of the pianist-conductor-composer is indivisible; he considers himself a musician. The only child of two musicians, he says he was 'conducting' by age three, but settled into the piano by age seven and over time learned to play several instruments. He began serious work at the Moscow Central School at thirteen, and later the Moscow Conservatory where, like Rachmaninoff, he progressed at a phenomenal rate in all his studies. Of course there are differences. Pletnev has steadily built his piano career while also conducting an orchestra, a pursuit Rachmaninoff, disliking administrative politics, eschewed. Pletnev could have left his country as so many fine artists did (including Rachmaninoff) once it imploded to settle in the West, but he chose to stay and build a musical ensemble from the bottom up, with all its attendant headaches.

Rachmaninoff conducted relatively little and mostly in Russia, but early critical reviews noted his miserly, even primitive gestures, and Rachmaninoff wrote later of the necessity of restraint. 'He must have the strength to be quiet,' he said, of the conductor's art. 'And by "quiet" I do not mean placid or unmoved. The full intensity of musical emotion must be there, but at the heart of it is the quietness of perfect mental poise and power controlled.' Pletnev commands a much wider symphonic repertoire, but his manner and mastery evoke similar commentary. Many, like Gansch, formerly producer of the orchestra's recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, have remarked upon Pletnev's restrained manner on the podium: the minimal movement, the curious telepathy by which he can drive an orchestra to frenzy, tease them to musical mischief. 'It doesn't look like he moves much but he talks to them a lot in rehearsal,' Gansch says in a telephone conversation from Munich. 'Over thirteen years he has built a special rapport with them that affects everything they do. They will come in to record at midnight when we can get the Conservatory's Great Hall, after already working and teaching all day. They'll insist on working as long as necessary to get it right, even if it takes all night. But it comes from him; no other group would work like this.'

Though Pletnev has, of necessity, focused much of his energy over the last decade on the orchestra, he has also found time to compose several significant works, including a Classical Symphony, Triptych for symphony orchestra, and a Capriccio for piano and orchestra, as well as two string concertos and orchestral transcriptions of violin concertos for clarinet. Clarinetist Michael Collins, who has worked with Pletnev for over fifteen years, thinks the composing is a crucial element in his musical vision. 'When he suggested that the Beethoven Violin Concerto could be rewritten for clarinet, I said it would never work,' he recalls in a phone call from London. 'So to prove it he wrote up a lot of it and faxed it to me - and of course it was wonderful! I've played this and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto many times with other orchestras, but they're always special with Misha and the RNO because somehow, they almost breathe as one.' He's also composed transcriptions of ballets by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev for one and two keyboards. No surprise, then, to learn he has choreographed ballets in Moscow, though he declines to talk about it much. 'Mostly I teach them to work with the music instead of under it,' he offers, adding that he'd like to do more if he ever gets time.

Both Rachmaninoff and Pletnev made career realignment at midlife: Rachmaninoff from composition to the piano at 45, Pletnev from conducting to the keyboard at 43, though Pletnev still conducts frequently and has happily assumed the role of the RNO's Artistic Director this season. Likewise, Pletnev's pianism resonates of Rachmaninoff's in its distinctive timbre, supreme command of colour and sonority, crystalline articulation and almost unearthly technical control. Yet he is arguably the most individual pianist on the scene today; there's no mistaking the audacious virtuosity of his technique and imagination.

Western audiences had to wait a few years for Pletnev the Pianist, though. So deeply enmeshed was he with the RNO in its early years that he had little time for his own solo career. His long-time European manager, Denise Conta, had never heard of him when she was urged to hear him perform in Zurich back in 1992. 'I didn't even want to go and yet I knew in two bars this was the greatest talent I'd ever heard!' she recalls in a phone conversation from Geneva. Hours of talk later, they made a partnership. 'Managing Mikhail Pletnev was something I never dreamed to do, but I felt strongly that he must be known as a pianist, not solely as a conductor. This was difficult because the orchestra required so much of his attention. At that time I had little management experience and he had an open book, but we made a strategy and learned as we went along.' A steady increase in concerts and stellar recordings with Virgin Classics and Deutsche Grammophon and the world was on notice that this was one of the major musical talents of the age, a true artistic heir of Rachmaninoff.

'If you want to know about me, come to my concerts,' he has said often. 'I don't talk about what I do,' and in concert, certainly, there can be no words for what we hear. Appearing on stage suddenly, silently, like a character from the mists of a Chekhov story, he bows only minimally, offering just a sliver of a smile to wild applause; acknowledgement is something to be gotten through, a necessary integer of stage transit. The piano, though, is entry; beyond it are whole worlds. He sits close, moves little, plays deep in the keys, his face pensive, static; it is all a physio-spiritual process born of utter stillness.

Critics blanch, alternately rhapsodising and ravaging his way with anything he does, probably out of strained miscomprehension, for Pletnev has unwittingly created a new image of the musician, much as Chekhov did for the writer in 19th-century literature. Both revamp the artist as a detached observer who submits his material to an intense study devoid of any ideological excess, but ignited by a passion for artistic truth. Metaphysician and poet, Pletnev rethinks the essential character of music we may have known forever and recasts it in a new and persuasive light. Haydn, Scarlatti, Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven, Scriabin, it's all propelled by the unerring aesthetic acumen of a heat-seeking missile and executed by quicksilver fingers, juxtaposing every conceivable colour in hues hitherto undreamed of. For all the diaphanous fire of his Scarlatti recordings, released to apoplectic acclaim (and some spluttering outrage) in 1995, there is also sheer sweet bruising pain in the corners of the Kk213 D minor Sonata, for example. The heart is in the throat from one moment to the next, for he is one of the few living pianists able to wring immense emotion from just single notes.

Keener agrees, and recalls hearing Pletnev perform Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme by Corelli in concert. 'It was astonishing, because I felt he was playing them for me, though my presence was neither here nor there to him. On that occasion the beauty of the way he ended the last variation was almost unbearable. At times one feels one's mind being entered against one's will. There really is a kind of sorcery.' And instantaneous combustion. Allegations of 'cool' pianism seem ill-placed given, for example, Chopin's Grande Polonaise on DG's 'Hommage a Rachmaninov' disc of 1999. Often dismissed as an ill-conceived bonbon, Pletnev romances this stone to a jewel of high-grade brilliance and transparency, warmed by a humanity as raw and open as a violet on a chilly spring morning.

But beneath the reserve and the reined ardour lies a sense of humour second to none. In DG's brilliant pairing of Pletnev and CPE Bach, both dazzling mavericks intent on testing the limits of their art, the pianist's coy wit and preternatural technical control find full traction in the composer's wildly idiosyncratic sonatas and rondos. Conversation lies at the heart of this music, as written and as played. Daring rubatos, glittering cascades, dynamic extremes, sudden attacks, it's all pithy repartee across two centuries between kindred comedic spirits who seem to agree, tongue- in-cheek, that if you have to be a genius, you may as well have a little fun with it.

'Pletnev is one of the true phenomena of all music,' Keener observes. 'But interestingly he's different as a conductor and pianist. As a conductor he's minimal in movement, elegant, Classical, yet with plenty of power. As a pianist he is by turns Romantic, startling, even truculent. But always it's effortless.' He confirms reports that Pletnev picked up scores for the Scarlatti sonatas just before the flight to London to record them, studying them on the plane; he'd never played them before. Only one disc was planned, but once he sat down, he just kept going, rendering up two hours of food for the gods. 'When we recorded the Sleeping Beauty transcription, he showed up at the studio about noon, played the whole thing through twice, immaculately, and then he was through,' he continues. 'No warming up; he can start at that peak of inspiration right away. I asked for a couple of re-takes which he did like a lamb, but no more. "I don't want to give you too much, Ahndrew," he'd say. Well, I never needed much! We once did a whole Chopin disc in half a day.' When Keener needed a score for the Nutcracker Suite, Pletnev stayed up all night, writing it out from memory.

'He may come into the studio several days running, say he is not ready and leave,' reports Gansch, who has produced all his solo recordings for DG. 'But one day he will come in and say, "Okay, let's try", and then play for eight or nine hours without breaking. We don't waste time with a lot of takes, there is no need. He is very efficient in that he thinks about the music a great deal and then when he's ready, it's all there.'

'It's all the product of a constant dialectic of self-examination', says Foster, who pronounces him the greatest artist he's ever worked with. 'The profound integrity of his musicianship is the result of rigorous intellectual discipline and artistic impulse fused in the moment,' he says, and Collins agrees. 'Once we were about to do a recital together. He was late getting to the hall and I was worried as we hadn't rehearsed as much as I'd wished. But he said "Don't worry, Misky, I'll be with you every moment because I know how you work best - under stress!" And of course he was there every moment, because of this amazing instinct.'

But this afternoon, the artist is uninterested in discussing artistry. Though the recent release of his collaboration with Mstislav Rostropovich and the RNO in the third piano concertos of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev has unleashed the usual tsunami of mixed commentary, he says he hasn't listened to the disc yet. 'Why?' he asks, puzzled. 'I could not change anything.' Generally he listens to a couple of takes, but otherwise doesn't concern himself with production, he says; he likes to do things and move on. 'I look inside myself, see what the music has given me, listen to the way it speaks to me,' he has said elsewhere of this recording and one senses this is his approach to everything in life, as well as music. Though some fault his textual license, perhaps in truth he takes no liberties with the score, only the printed notes on the page. What is given must thereby be given again... set free.

Any artist possessed of such dazzling facility, fearless imagination, and unyielding individuality is going to earn a fair amount of crusty commentary and Pletnev has attracted plenty - but he remains indifferent to it all. When shown a recent story about him published in the New York Times titled 'It's All A Game And Only He Knows The Rules,' his shrug suggests it's a game, all right, and we all know the rules, but he's not playing. He will not compromise his own standards to the demands of The Business, which means no schmoozing, no dealing, no photo ops, 'no cooperation,' says Walker. 'He won't surrender his own truth to someone else's agenda.'

If, as Goethe tells us, contradiction is the great begetter, then Pletnev, like Rachmaninoff before him, seems to have mastered the paradox of solitude in modern times: a life not quiet at all, but vibrant with that contained prosperity whose sources are interior - in the world but not of it. Maybe the key to both men lies in the lifelong sobriquet Rachmaninoff earned within his family, 'Ya sam.' I myself.

'I think what confuses people,' muses Markov, 'is that Pletnev is not part of this, part of that. He is part of nothing. He follows no road map, but goes along improvising life, co-creating as he goes. He is of no time, really, and no place. He is himself.' Ya sam.

© 2003, International Piano Magazine. Reprinted with permission.