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Dip Your Ears, No. 94

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Piano Concertos,
Pletnev / RNO / Gansch

DG [Import]

How much can an interpreter say anew about a piece played by just about every pianist under the sun and of which there are well over 100 different recordings to choose from? Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and Symphonies are the object of Mikhail Pletnev’s recent recordings which Deutsche Grammophon, and now that the project is officially finished with the issue of the five piano concertos in an elegant slim box, he 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 I so much liked the first volume for. Pletnev, as magnificent as 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 March of last year.

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-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 usually. Finally it delights – at least this listener.

The RNO proves to be Russia’s finest orchestra (although hardly its most Russian) and 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 par with the quality of the performances. Only in the Fifth – E-major – are the closely recorded winds caught with some notable, excessive hiss.

The whole concerto cycle is willful & 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, if anyone.)

I suppose it would be easy to pick ‘odd’ out 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.

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