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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphonic Studies, Op. 13 (1852 version with Etudes from 1837 version, also including 1873 Appendix) [28’09]. Fantasie in C, Op. 17 (1836) [31’13]. Bunte Blätter, Op. 99 (1836-49) - Albumblätter I-V [8’23]. Arabeske in C, Op. 18 (1839) [6’36]
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Rec. Teldec Studio, Berlin, Germany, in August, 2003. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 813-2 [76’31]

Mikhail Pletnev must be one of the most infuriating musicians alive. His Schumann at the Barbican in March 2003 included the Bunte Blätter and the Fantasie heard here. Despite some beautiful moments, nothing was out-and-out revelation, and much was bewildering, seemingly quirky and subject to spur of the moment eccentricities with scant regard to structure.

The Theme of the Symphonic Studies in the present recording is typical Pletnev. While one admires the well-balanced chords, it simply wanders. The dotted rhythms of the first variations seem exaggerated, with accents stabbed-at; yet the second variation includes a very impressive (bass-up) build-up, orchestrally-conceived chordal repetitions and some very tender contrasts.

Indeed it is contrast that sums up Pletnev’s approach. Variation V is very agitato; Variation VII includes explosive bass trills, emerging like a very distorted Handel ‘Ouverture’. If at all possible, things are sharply etched - try Variation VI (track 8).

The Finale epitomises the perils of Pletnev’s approach. Instead of being cumulative, it is decidedly stop-start and therefore endlessly frustrating, full of agogic commas that I might be tempted to write might work in the concert hall if I did not already know that they don’t. It is left to the very last chord, full-bodied and strong, to remind us just how good DG’s recording is. But whatever the strengths on paper of Pletnev’s programming of Etudes and Variations, on this aural evidence it simply fails to add up to an expressive experience.

Pletnev’s lingering on the first (bass) note of the Fantasie should come as no surprise after the Etudes. Indeed, a twilight interpretation is the order of the day. The quasi-improvisatory line of the opening very soon tends towards the meandering and around the three minute mark the inevitable happens - the music all but stops, Pletnev has fragmented it so much. A good delineation of lines at the climax is hardly recompense.

The subdued second movement also threatens to lose its way. In fact, it sounds downright lazy and most decidedly un-grand. The massive aggregation of sound around 5’55 is undeniably exciting, but mainly because it is loud. If there are some magical sonorities in the finale, it must be borne in mind that the musical fabric does threaten to disintegrate on more than one occasion.

The five Albumblätter again bring problems. The first was more successful live (here it wanders around); honours are evenly spread for the fast second. The intimate third and fourth work a little better, particularly the fourth (which I see was the most successful live, too). The fifth finds Pletnev vandalising Schumann’s music into mere doodling.

Finally, an Arabeske that lives up to expectations. It is a curious mix, impulsive yet without any real life-blood.

This disc offers a generous playing time. If you admire Pletnev (and many do), this will be excellent value for money. For the rest of us, it all just seems so l....o....n....g. Fans of Schumann may like to give this disc a wide berth.

Colin Clarke

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