How much can an interpreter say anew about a piece played by just
about every pianist under the sun and from which there are well
over 100 different recordings to choose? Beethoven’s piano concertos
and symphonies are the object of Mikhail Pletnev’s recent recordings
with Deutsche Grammophon. Now that the project is officially finished
with the issue of the five piano concertos in an elegant slim
box, he – Pletnev – might just have given us the answer.
I had been looking forward to concertos Two, Four, and Five ever since
the North American release of the first disc with One and Three.
Hearing them now was a very pleasant reaffirmation of the quality
for which I so much liked the first volume. Pletnev, as magnificent
as he is headstrong a pianist, would be the person to do just
that – without (necessarily) distorting the music. Sometimes
to triumphant and enjoyable effect (Scarlatti, Mozart), sometimes
with more arguable success. Together with “his” Russian National
Orchestra – which has more or less avoided becoming a pawn
in the political games of Moscow
– he made 2006 a ‘Beethoven Year’: A subtly unsubtle
political message to celebrate the revolutionary republican
composer when everybody else in Russia was busy extolling the
virtues of Shostakovich. His performances of the concertos in
the Beethoven Haus in Bonn resulted in DG’s live recordings,
the first of which was issued in March 2007.
Sure enough, Pletnev does things just a bit different. From the first
notes on, the concertos sound a little extra bold, a little
extra fresh; capricious, perhaps, but with the light and joyful
- and sometimes deliberately heavy - touch that made his Mozart
so oddly irresistible. There is an insubordinate spark and a
twinkle in his notes I don’t hear from other pianists. This
is quite in contrast to how Pletnev looks when he is playing,
which is rather miserable as Sviatoslav Richter had remarked
a long time ago and which still hasn’t changed. The performances
appear faster than they already are – impetuous at times; in
the c-minor concerto, especially. All five concertos are very
energetic stuff, with many forward bursts - occasionally bordering
the hectic in the 2nd concerto - and great momentum.
The altogether electric, nervous atmosphere is well conveyed
even on disc.
Amid general beauty and excitement, Pletnev does have a few surprises
to offer. You won’t be able not to note the strangely stressed
halts in the entry of the solo opening of the G-major Concerto
- is it loutish or ingenious? The stuttering breakdown in the
cadenza of the C-major concerto’s third movement is accentuated
in such a way that it sounds like a genuinely different piece
of music, although the notes (and their order) are evidently
all the same.
Upon first hearing, the effect is rather “what-the-hell”. There was
much comparing to other favorite recordings of mine - Uchida,
Aimard where that moment flutters by without much notice - and
even head-scratching. But these overly vigorous accents, syncopations,
and the shifting of balances are supposed to be the
soloist’s realm of fancy and they contribute, rather than distract.
For one, they make you listen closely to the music - something
which may not be as much a given in these warhorses as we’d
like to admit to ourselves.
the B flat-major concerto Pletnev’s hands present the voices
with surprisingly equal weight. Entire passages, usually relegated
to the background, attain a life of their own. At first this
challenges our expectations, then it challenges the ears to
take in more information than usual. Finally it delights – at
least this listener.
RNO proves to be Russia’s finest orchestra - although hardly its
most Russian. Pletnev’s usual record producer Christian
Gansch (a pianist, former violinist for the Munich
Philharmonic, and – as evident here – capably supportive conductor)
leads them through the concertos with aplomb, though notably as
an extension of the soloist’s will. The quality of the live recording
is on a par with the quality of the performances. Only in the
Fifth – E flat-major – are the closely recorded winds caught with
some notable hiss.
The whole concerto cycle is wilful and impetuous – without ever being
importunate. Elsewhere Pletnev’s approach has aptly been called
“impish”, without demeritorious intent. Indeed, these are performances
that are actually very elegant and generous in their way. Pletnev’s
superb touch on the softly sonorous Blüthner concert grand
alone is worth listening to. He might be considered at the other
end of the interpretive spectrum, but there are moments in the
“Emperor” concerto where his touch reminds me of Wilhelm Backhaus,
I suppose it would be easy to pick out ‘odd’ instances, judge them
against a theoretical or actual ideal and declare them pertinacious.
If you often read classical CD reviews, you will know the kind
of critic who would have a field day diligently and scathingly
picking this performance apart. But he or they would be missing
the point of the whole - happy enjoyment rather than stern adherence
to preset standards - in isolating instances. True: if Clifford
Curzon, who I adore, marks the limits of the emotional extremes
to which you are willing to let a pianist go, then Pletnev is
not for you. But if you are inclined to enjoy great music without
ideological strings attached, you might consider this set among
the finds of the year.
Clarke reviewed Concertos 1
& 3 for MusicWeb, Dominy