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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Francesca da Rimini - Fantasy op. 32 (transc. Karl Klindworth (1830-1916)) [24:09]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Sonata op. 2 No. 2 () [22:31]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Etudes-Tableaux: op. 39, nos, 1,3, 8; op. 33 no. 3 [12:24]
Dennis Plutalov (piano)
rec. 4 December 2007, 25 September 2005, Kimball Recital Hall, USA, (Francesca; Etudes); 1 December 2004, Crowford Hall (LVB). DDD

Experience Classicsonline

The entire raison d’être for this disc is the recording of the piano transcription of Tchaikovsky’s epic orchestral fantasy Francesca da Rimini Op.32. In case you were in any doubt as to this fact the accompanying booklet reproduces the cover of this transcription and contains not a single word on anything except this piece. So, is it worth that degree of attention? The answer is a resounding yes.

The author of the transcription is the largely forgotten Karl Klindworth. He was yet another of those 19th Century keyboard lions whose career flourished as a virtuoso performer/teacher/conductor. His name is largely forgotten today but it is fascinating how, once you start to dig, he appears allied to many of the greatest and most influential composers of that century. He was an early pupil/disciple of Liszt, met and became a long-standing acolyte of Wagner and then - most pertinently in the case of this disc - lived in Moscow for 14 years teaching at the Conservatory becoming a close associate of Tchaikovsky. So close that he is the dedicatee of both one of the early Op.4 piano pieces and the much more substantial Grand Sonata Op.3. He also made a two piano-four hands version of the Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet. In all probability it was he who introduced Tchaikovsky to the music of both Liszt and Wagner. Given that Francesca da Rimini is the most overtly Lisztian of his works and that it was conceived after a trip to Bayreuth a pleasing symmetry appears. You might even be able to go as far as arguing that Klindworth was some kind of midwife for the genesis of this great piece. Given at least his first-hand association with all of the parties involved it means that his transcription must benefit from being of its time and place.

An important thing to note straightaway is that this is a true transcription not a treatment or “fantasy on….” in the way that Liszt often wrote. This is immediately apparent when you compare the full orchestral score and this version which is easily done as both scores are available for free download. It is remarkable how true to the original Klindworth is. As the pianist here Denis Plutalov writes in the liner-notes (and more extensively on the Sheva Collection website no musically significant material or line is missed. Which makes this a terrifyingly hard piece to perform. Certainly this would not have been a commercial transcription for the delight of gentle pianists in the privacy of their own salons! In his notes Plutalov writes compellingly about his discovery of the score and how his extended study of it helped him recover from a personal crisis. Listening to the recording one is in no doubt as to the missionary zeal of the performance. Setting aside the medium used I found this to be a superb interpretation of this score. Whilst it lacks the endless melodic streams of the ballets and Romeo and Juliet I have always loved the possessed/obsessed passion of this score. Tchaikovsky clearly identifies with the forbidden love damned for all eternity aspect of the narrative. This drew from him some of the most sustained dramatic music he ever wrote. My own favourite version is a long-deleted Olympia (OCD139) in rather rough Soviet-style sound from Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov with the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra. They storm through it in 22½ minutes. It’s in harness with the Fedoseyev Tchaikovsky 5 - also very underrated. The Ovchinnikov Francesca sounds exactly like a ride into the jaws of hell! Plutalov seems to be aiming for a similar wild and emotional effect. The price he pays for this is a significant number of missed notes. As a one finger one thumb pianist myself I feel rather ashamed mentioning this but it has to be said that there are quite a few errors and I suspect that might grate with some listeners on repeated hearing. I should stress though that for myself I would trade many more technical slips for a performance like this so full of conviction and fire.

The lecture notes come from a public recital given on 8 December 2007 and this recording dates from the same venue four days earlier so this does not appear to be a live performance. As recorded the piano just about survives the onslaught to which it is subjected and its tone is well caught in passages at both ends of the dynamic range. One thing I think Plutalov does particularly well is the quiet reflective passages - his intuitive rubato allowing the music to ebb and flow seems to me exactly right and this lyricism pays off all the more once we are swept away again into Dante’s Inferno.

Having been so thrilled by the Tchaikovsky which opens the disc the Beethoven Piano Sonata Op.2 No.2 that follows makes no sense whatsoever. As mentioned, the liner-notes don’t refer to it at all so we are given no clue as to why it appears here. This is one of several rather idiosyncratic production choices by Sheva Collection. The back cover of the CD does not actually say which Sonata this is (it is printed on the front of the CD in rather small type) and much worse the gap from Tchaikovsky to Beethoven is not even 10 seconds. The Sonata was recorded - far less well - in another venue three years before the Tchaikovsky and Plutalov is as ill at ease with this genre as he is totally at one with the other. For all it’s pushing of the formal boundaries of the time - Beethoven works motivically rather than thematically and the Largo appassionato second movement is more searching than was the norm then - this Sonata is a classical piano sonata and it does not respond well to a big-boned approach. Plutalov treats the dynamics with the same kind of romantic extreme that worked in the Tchaikovsky; in Beethoven it sounds crude. Some of the scalic passage-work comes over as uneven and lumpy. Then, very curiously, he omits the repeat of the second half of the Scherzo - which is still very much in Minuet and Trio form. Choices over repeats are always a matter for debate but to miss such a standard one needs explanation and justification. As noted earlier the recording here is far less satisfactory - boxy and restricted. One thought - it is mentioned that Klindworth produced an edition of all of the Beethoven Sonatas. I am not enough of an expert in this field but is there any chance Plutalov plays this edition?

The disc is completed by four seemingly arbitrarily chosen - if not then tell us why not! - Etudes Tableaux by Rachmaninov. These were recorded back in the same hall as the Tchaikovsky but this time in 2005. As might be imagined they suit Plutalov far more. On the other hand he is entering a field occupied by all the great pianists. His performances are good if not head-turningly revelatory. With a disc that has about twenty minutes of unused space on it the inclusion of only four of the pieces seems an error of judgment not to have recorded one set complete. As the recordings on this disc took more than three years to compile would that time not have been far better used to have give us a whole disc of Klindworth transcriptions. There seems to be some contradiction in that Plutalov writes that few of the Klindworth transcriptions have survived yet elsewhere states that his piano reduction - commissioned by Wagner himself - of The Ring is still in common use by accompanists. Assuming that includes the great orchestral set pieces I would love to hear Klindworth’s take on the Magic Fire music or Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March.

In the final reckoning it is hard to make a judgment on this disc. I cannot imagine it being of any interest to any collector except for the transcription. For that alone it is worth hearing. I would be surprised if this does not encourage other pianists to seek it out as a remarkable vehicle to display their keyboard prowess. In the meantime this is a very worthy debut where an insightful interpretation is tempered by technical limitations. Just make sure you press stop before the Beethoven starts.

Nicholas Barnard 


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