GRIEG Sonata; Lyric Pieces; 7 Fugues.
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon DG
459 671-2; 75 mins.
Grieg is a curious case, a minor master who is probably best known
for his piano concerto and Peer Gynt music, and is loved by amateur
pianists who generally have copies of some of his Lyric Pieces and
enjoy playing them. His string quartet and sonatas are heard from time to
time, likewise some of the songs, and a rediscovered early symphony created
a stir a decade ago. Three recordings are available and Grieg has generally
been well served by the recording industry.
There is a notable CD devoted solely to Grieg's Lyric Pieces by no less a
pianist than Emil Gilels
449 721-2GOR] but this present, wisely devised, programme is a
better introduction to his solo piano music in my view. There are no
masterpieces, but several gems. The seven Fugues were student exercises from
1861, never published in his lifetime but neither were they repudiated or
destroyed. They are clearly Bach derived and include an elaborate double
fugue. Pletnev makes an excellent case for them and this, their first recording,
is amply justified. These fugues also serve to remind of Pletnev's fresh
approach to older music - his 1994 double-CD of thirty Scarlatti sonatas
[EMI Virgin Classics VCD5 45123 2]
of my favourite piano recordings, far more interesting (to me) than a more
recent one by Perahia which gained a Gramophone award.
The four movement Sonata Op 7 of a few years later is rather a heavy affair
which I have played without great enthusiasm, save for its peculiar so-called
Minuet which, as the liner notes say, justifies its name 'only by dint of
the time-signature'. That was included in a piano anthology which I have
known since childhood. But under Pletnev's hands it is all clarified and
lightened, and brought to vivid life - certainly well worth hearing and having
The cunning of this programme derives from the appreciation that the
Lyric Pieces, Grieg's most important contribution to the piano
literature, are best heard in fairly small groups; Pletnev gives us a dozen,
which is enough. There are ten volumes, 66 pieces in all, in the tradition
of romantic piano pieces by Schumann and Mendelssohn. They have titles suggesting
extra-musical influences and some, such as To Spring and Butterfly
are quite popular. The snag is that the majority are in a strict ternary
form, which makes great demands upon the pianist's sensibilities if the
predictable repeats are not to pall.
I was taught to savour Grieg's unique harmony, and to think back to it as
if new-minted. Bellringing is positively avant-garde with its accumulation
of parallel fifths (nearly twenty years before Debussy's Cathedrale
engloutie). One of my own favourites, from the delightful Op. 57 book,
is Vanished Days, described aptly by Joachim Dorfmuller as having
outer sections 'melancholically dramatic and harmonically daring', framing
an elegant springar. His essay puts the music in clear perspective,
DG's studio recording is excellent.
Mikhail Pletnev demonstrates again and again that transcendent pianism
is not just a matter of speed and prestidigitation; equally important is
the voicing of chords and precise management of minute inflections of melodic
shapes and overall rubato. In these performances one welcomes the
repeats and I look forward to sharing my enjoyment of this marvellous CD.
Peter Grahame Woolf