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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.19 (ca 1801) [28:24]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58 (1805-06) [35:02]
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Russian National Orchestra/Christian Gansch
rec. Bonn, Beethovenhalle, 2-3 September 2006
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6416 [63:26]

Looking at some of the concert reviews of Mikhail Pletnev’s performances of the Beethoven concertos he is quite prepared to take interpretative risks, and in courting controversy has inevitably come in for a deal of negative criticism. On their website promotion, DG points out that “Like Beethoven himself, Pletnev is a pianist, a conductor, and a composer… He strongly believes in interpretative freedom and an artist’s obligation not to deliver a “mausoleum-like performance” but rather to make classical music come to life by using it to communicate his own emotions to the audience.” Pletnev himself says “For me Beethoven is like a god. I worship him, and I admire his music. It always produces very deep emotions in me when I’m conducting it or playing it on the piano.”

As a composer and a performing musician myself I do know what it is like to perform one’s own music in public. There is the score of course, and if one is performing alongside other musicians then there is always a responsibility not to go so far off the wall so that the whole thing falls apart. There is however also that small demon on one’s shoulder who is saying “it’s my music – I’ll play it any damn way I want to.” In this regard I can appreciate how – feeling at one with Beethoven as he does, Pletnev can express a similar kind of freedom in the way he performs these works. I wholly agree with Pletnev’s statement that the music should communicate emotionally, that “It should go from heart to heart”, and if the means for doing so go beyond mere convention or some kind of stagnant performing tradition then so be it: as long as the results respect Beethoven’s intentions – or the performer’s honest idea of what those intentions can be at that moment, and these are very much live performances after all.

I have traveled around with this CD for a few days, playing it at full volume in the car on the way to rehearsals and recording sessions. While there are some eccentric moments I’ve never found myself really put off by anything Pletnev does – on the contrary, the differences have kept my attention and renewed my interest in these works. I’m all for expanding beyond the boundaries set by other musicians, and I’m sure that Pletnev would come in for as much criticism if he held the middle ground in these concertos. For a start, he gains my appreciation in selecting a Blüthner concert grand piano for these performances. The ubiquitous Steinway has its qualities, but I remember enjoying the richness and bass depth of the Blüthner pianos in the Royal Academy of Music practice rooms, and I wasn’t the only one who preferred them. A good instrument will give you such a variety of colour, and where Steinway may win in terms of sparkle and sheer power, a good Blüthner can mirror the sound of the orchestra, blending and imitating with the other instruments as well as lording it over everyone as a big shiny soloist. There are enough places in these recordings where Pletnev swims like an ivory coloured fish through the orchestral textures, rather than sitting on top of them like a gaudy crown, and I appreciate the intimacy of this relationship between orchestra and piano.

The five Piano Concertos, spread over three discs in this cycle, were recorded live with the same orchestra over two days during the 2006 Beethoven Festival in Bonn. Conductor Christian Gansch is a regular guest conductor with this orchestra, and the players clearly respond well to his leadership. Like the set of Beethoven’s complete symphonies conducted by Pletnev that I also had the privilege to review, this concentrated time span seems to have generated its own kind of intensity. There is no sense of compression or desperate hurry in the performances, but they do have a kind of pioneering, ‘on the edge’ feel to them – not in the sense of potential if unrealised disaster at every corner, but in the sense of a special event – the atmosphere of the beginning of something new, rather than the culmination of long hours of hard work. The orchestra I do have to say sounds marvellous in these recordings, with warm bass and strings, nicely rounded wind sounds, and the kind of synergy with their founder which made those Mozart concertos with Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra so special.

Pletnev’s opening in the first movement of the Concerto No.2 is rather sharp, almost hectoring against the pleasant, relatively benign orchestra. He places pianistic staccato against orchestral legato, but when the melody takes a more important role later on he can introduce the necessary changes of colour and legato lines. This to me is a ‘wide awake’ performance, throwing in accents where one might not expect them, but as a result maintaining a high level of interest and expectancy – and yes, surprise, which is what Czerny said Beethoven sought most in his own playing style. The gorgeous second movement’s Adagio is warmly introduced by all concerned, Pletnev singing a quiet, loving aria with the piano – his own vocalisations also audible in the background. When released from the full accompaniment of the orchestra there is always a slight sense of danger with Pletnev – he holds power in reserve, but seems sometimes almost loth to rein it in, allowing the peaks and troughs of phrases to hold as much dynamic as they can handle – singing across the orchestra and audience. There are some truly magical quiet, almost silent moments towards the end of the movement as well, and the piano solo at the opening of the Rondo breaks in like a party of drunks on the most tender of love scenes. The final movement is rousing and sportive, Pletnev toying with the tempi with great dips of rubato during some of the solos, and revelling in the left hand octave leaps, the Blüthner punching out rich bass tones but as equally agile in the sparkle of the treble. 

With applause only right at the end of the CD, the well behaved audience doesn’t figure much at all on this recording. The opening of the Concerto No.4 is, after the initial bars call to attention, like a quiet prayer. As the movement proper gets underway the pastoral character of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is recalled to a certain extent – cheerful feelings in a person on arriving in the concert-hall; and Pletnev gives us plenty to smile about with truly bravura playing, effortlessly negotiating some spectacular twists and turns. The rhythmic four note motif of the 5th symphony inhabits this movement like a pervasive but shadowy character – Hitchcock behind a curtain – but with neither pianist or conductor over-emphasising it. There is far too much going on to pin down one or other aspect as a characterising factor, each musical fragment full of variation and detail. Pletnev’s improvisatory approach with the cadenza is refreshing, although there may be some who frown on some moments of perceived over-pedalling. I find some of the quasi-antique effects quite invigorating, where Pletnev almost seems to want to make the huge grand sound like an early fortepiano. He certainly grabs attention through a wealth of ideas, with very little which is ‘standard’ in this feast of ‘living’ Beethoven. In the Andante con moto Pletnev almost takes back seat, the piano initially sidling towards the orchestras gruff statements with seemingly unrelated material. This recitative creates atmosphere, but also generates more questions than it does answers – turned into something modern and strange. As with the second concerto, the final Rondo has zest and athletic drive. Beethoven is no longer satisfied with merely an energetic gallop however, and the fascinating twists and turns of the first movement are recalled with spectacular variations. As with all of the other movements on this recording, there is never a sense of transition in the music – no hanging around waiting for one climax or another: instead each segment and every note has significance and value, in many cases beyond that which I’ve heard them given on other recordings. 

There may be many and various arguments as to why these performances might be imperfect, but to my mind life is too short for mithering about trifles when presented with such visceral and stimulating musicianship. I shall certainly be looking out for the other discs in this set, and my Beethoven collection will be unquiet until I have them. 

Dominy Clements




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