Vladimir Pleshakov’s Carnegie Hall debut

Sitting in Carnegie Hall a person is easily overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of it, wondering how a musician could fill its vastness with music and how anyone could possibly stand out as more than a speck against the hall’s enormity. Of course, if you’re performing at Carnegie Hall you’re obviously an incredibly accomplished artist, and this is true of the performers I saw last Sunday. Coinciding with my Carnegie Hall debut as an attendee was Vladimir Pleshakov’s debut both as a composer and performer. Now in his seventies, Pleshakov has had a full life and career as a pianist, touring extensively throughout the world. In addition, he and his wife Elena Winther, also a pianist, opened a music center of their own (the Pleshakov Music Center, which is sadly no longer still open) and are actively involved in collecting rare historic pianos for the piano museum they founded, the Pleshakov Piano Museum where they frequently give concerts and lectures. At the Carnegie Hall recital the pianists played works by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. In addition, the concert also featured Pleshakov’s own compositions — written for unaccompanied choir — sung by the Aoede Consort conducted by Dan Foster.

I actually studied with Vladamir Pleshakov for many years, and although he was my teacher I felt tremendously proud being witness to such a wonderful highlight of his career. Opening the concert was one of two sets of songs composed by Mr. Pleshakov — or, as he puts it, simply documented by him: “It seems to me that I do not really compose, I merely write down, in the best way I can, what already exists–somewhere. The music is everywhere , and I hear it when I take pains to listen. I hear clearly, through 70 years of elapsed time, music that others might have composed but never did . . . It is my turn to do what others have not done yet, but do it my way.”

There’s something deeply powerful about the human voice, and Pleshakov utilizes it beautifully to express a wide variety of emotions as well as simple beauty and grace. Even if you don’t understand the language of the songs you can easily understand the essence of the music, which has the power to infuse you with calm contentment while stirring something deep within your own essence, and I was filled with a glowing warmth and joy. After that, Pleshakov and Elena Winther came out to play Rachmaninoff’s Finale from the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 for two pianos. In the piece, one pianist finishes the other’s thoughts and notes yet it is not so much a co-dependency as a duality, each existing sturdily on its own but made all the more magnificent by the other. The music is clean, precise, and has folk-like syncopations. At the same time it is also spiritual, as Mr. Pleshakov pointed out during a brief introduction, but it’s primarily exciting music evoking images of esoteric folk dances from somewhere far away from NYC. Next, the two pianists played Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Ironically, the piece was actually originally written for voice with piano accompaniment and there are many arrangements for it, including one for choir, but I’m glad the Pleshakov’s played the arrangement for two pianos. The melody is absolutely stunning, and the piece was played beautifully by Mr. and Mrs. Pleshakov. For the second half of the program Mr. Pleshakov performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111. The first movement is filled with turbulence, excitement, and finesse, played brilliantly by Pleshakov. The piano growled, snapped, and laughed under his caring fingers, the music sparkling with wit. The second movement is stately, dignified, and much more delicate and melodic. Finally, to close the program, the choir came out to sing another set of songs by Mr. Pleshakov but received a standing ovation and was called back for an encore.

I have the utmost respect for Mr. Pleshakov, who is truly one of the last of a generation of masters in the European tradition. Both in his playing and compositions he crafts and carves spaces in sound and time, moments filled simultaneously with deliberation yet ease, sorrow yet beauty; moments that fill your being with the heart of the past, present, and future mingled peacefully yet energetically into one. Pleshakov has the mind of a scholar, the skill of a craftsman, and the passion of a true artist. Above all, however, he is an enthusiastic teacher (whether you’re his student or simply someone who has just met him) who wants to share the joy and understanding that he bears with the rest of the world.

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