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Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies / Mikhail Pletnev, Et Al

Release Date: 09/11/2007 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000966502   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Angela DenokeMarianna TarasovaMatthias GoerneEndrik Wottrich
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National OrchestraMoscow Chamber Chorus
Number of Discs: 5 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Symphonies 1–9 Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Natl O; Moscow St C Ch; Angela Denoke (sop); Marianna Tarasova (mez); Endrik Wottrich (ten); Matthias Goerne (bar) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 000966502 (5 CDs: 336:19)

Expect the unexpected. That seems to be the best way to describe Mikhail Pletnev’s way of making music. However, expecting the unexpected can soon become tiresomely predictable and you realize that Pletnev actually has a limited approach. I write not about this set of Beethoven’s symphonies (at Read more the moment!) but about numerous concerts I have attended with Pletnev either as pianist or conductor, and sometimes both, and have come away disenchanted by the (seemingly) contrived, mannered, or improvisatory approach that is either blatantly calculated or blithely extemporized at the expense of the music and the audience. Of course, no one would argue against the fact that Pletnev is a master pianist and that he is capable of generating a committed and heeding response from an orchestra. It’s the results that can be the problem.

But, all this said, this Beethoven set demands to be heard. It exudes, before a note is heard, a curious fascination. Just what will Pletnev do with this so familiar, oft-recorded music? Something for the sake of it? Something pondered over much time? Will it convince or irritate? These recordings were made in June and July 2006.

Where better than to start with Symphony No. 1? (The symphonies are coupled 1/3, 2/4, 5/7, and 6/8.) No. 1 is expressive, the melodies cosseted, and the sound of the orchestra is warm and glowing. Just a little precious too. But the main Allegro of the first movement is quickly paced and incisively played with a light touch as required, sparkling detail, and some “personal” touches that avoid (just) seeming contrived. This is Beethoven equally capable of a blunt statement as putting a comforting arm around you. The Menuetto (really a Scherzo) is ideally paced, not rushed; while the finale is taken at a spanking rate: whether a more measured speed would be beneficial, there is no doubting the superb unanimity, glint, and revealing of the playing.

The “Eroica” follows. The cannon shots of the opening two chords command attention, their introductory rhetoric and internal punctuation notable. A swift pace, with some dragging back, informs the exposition, fleet but meaningful, with some well-timed lyrical asides amidst the energetic purpose. I was rather hoping that Pletnev would omit the repeat of the exposition; he doesn’t, but suggests he might, until the return is teasingly introduced. That’s a bit mannered, in fact, and whether it stands up on future listens is another matter; so, too, Pletnev’s other (comparably mild and often convincing) interventions. (By the way, and as a diversion, how I agree with Jerry Dubins’s comments on repeats in the September/October issue, 31:1, p. 347.) For the record, then, Pletnev observes all those repeats that are marked, except—wait for it, in the finale of Symphony No. 5. (I can’t begin to think why Pletnev should make this omission when it is the only one he makes.) The funeral-march second movement of the “Eroica” is weighty, brooding, and intense, quite spacious and not (thank goodness) playing to the metronome, although Pletnev’s speeds elsewhere are very much foot down. I like this “Eroica” very much, a mix of verve, oration, import, and convincing if erratic manipulations. Whether the pause before the three horns show in the Trio of the Scherzo, and the notable slowing for their solo spot, will stand up is something else again. Szell and his Clevelanders, in so many ways, remain the yardstick in this mighty work.

I like the Second, too, an exhilarating ride, and with a very expressive and agreeable slow movement. The finale, though, speeds recklessly, if with poise and control. (Celibidache in Munich, on EMI, is wonderfully measured here, the performance as a whole fascinating.) But, then, the opening of the Fourth is compelling from Pletnev; dark and pensive, the gloom swept aside by thunderous timpani and a tempo for the Allegro vivace that goes like the wind with retarded fluctuations that avoid the monotony of speed but may also be considered attention seeking. The finale is very fast, to say the least; it left me cold, and there’s more wit in this music, too: try Paul Kletzki’s Czech Philharmonic version on Supraphon. Vänskä’s BIS version is another winner.

The Fifth! That famous, famous “motto” opening is here made separate, and Pletnev gives the impression that the exposition is discontinuous, quite a feat in so concentrated a structure. Less than convincing, but the succeeding Andante con moto is richly molded, even rather sentimental, yet the music’s significance is to the fore. To underline the inconsistency of Pletnev’s approach, the third movement Allegro is rather tame, although it improves in drive (Dorati on Mercury is an exemplar here). Pletnev eschews the unmarked repeat (reasonably enough), although it may be that Beethoven intended one. In this symphony, Giulini (LA Phil on DG) and Szell (his Concertgebouw version) are to the fore. Klemperer had a majestic way with it (and I shall never forget a deeply powerful, richly expressive London Phil concert performance with Vernon Handley conducting); Boulez’s New Philharmonia recording (like Klemperer) has good points to make (and he observes the contentious repeat of the Scherzo). I am afraid I found Pletnev’s finale (partly because of the lack of exposition repeat, although Szell doesn’t take it either, or Boulez) to be rather glib. DG of course has the (slightly overrated?) Carlos Kleiber recording.

Pletnev’s view of the Seventh stresses its rhythmic linearity, but his propensity for melodic elongation can be disruptive. I didn’t want the exposition repeated, and was disappointed, largely because the manner palled a second time and did so in the development, too, which is curiously lacking “fire within” (this symphony is one of the highpoints in Rattle’s irreconcilable EMI cycle with the Vienna Phil). At least Pletnev brings dignity to the Allegretto; this, for once, is no forward-moving march, and the Scherzo isn’t rushed either; indeed the tempo is ideally judged, the Trio fitting like a glove. It’s here that Toscanini (not, I must say, a Beethoven conductor that I feel any attraction to: rather hard-driven and lacking imagination) found the perfect solution to dovetailing and relating these sections. Pletnev’s view of the finale is propulsive if not manic (the marking is merely Allegro con brio , it is the Scherzo that is Presto; few conductors make the “right way round” distinction, Leonard Bernstein a notable exception).

The “Pastoral.” Oh dear! The opening is lingering and loving; then, in speeds (literally) the rest of the exposition. Express train. (This probably isn’t the moment to mention that JSC Russian Railways has financially supported these recordings!) This first movement has a complete lack of charm. Just ruthless efficiency. The “happy feelings” that Beethoven inscribed are trampled over. Sadly, the repeat is observed, and its return is botched. The second movement just doesn’t settle. The Scherzo is quite normal, welcome in context, the rhythmic gait inducing bucolic steps and more vigorous exhibitionism; the storm is suitably elemental; and the finale (when we get there, you’ll hear what I mean!) is blissful: well, it is until Pletnev speeds up! André Cluytens in his second Berlin Philharmonic recording remains a life-enhancing experience. (And there’s a lovely Boult of the “Pastoral,” his “late” EMI version, just restored to circulation, the first time on CD, on Medici Masters. I must confess to supplying the booklet note, but my comments relate entirely to the performance.)

In the Eighth, though, moderation is all; the first movement, relaxed and stamped, reminds of Knappertsbusch, without the bullishness, and is cumulatively satisfying until the unnecessary slowing on the final bars, they are so much wittier if left “in tempo,” as Monteux (Vienna Philharmonic for Decca) amusingly shows. Otherwise, this is a joy of an Eighth with a rascally finale to round things off.

The Ninth, the “Choral.” Mysterious, forceful, grand, and volatile: that’s the first movement, and here “enhanced” by less vibrato than the Russian National Orchestra use elsewhere, the right sort of pallor to engage the ear and lift the symphony off the launching pad. Again, the fluctuations of pace can seem overly contrived, but this tensile traversal is often thrilling, maintained in the Scherzo, dazzlingly brought off, and the very important second repeat of the Scherzo is taken, with a light-as-thistledown Trio. Now things go downhill. After such activity, the Adagio surely needs to bask in spaciousness. The lack of ceremony of the opening bars makes it clear that this isn’t going to the “heavenly length” of a Furtwängler performance, and while the string-playing is rapt and the “prayer” of the music quite well caught, it does sound a bit impatient and there’s not much room for the Andante contrasts to make their full mark. A little bit of portamento, nestling in the string thickets, comes as a surprise, but there is haste here, and more repose, something more Elysian, is needed, both on its own terms and certainly after the rapier qualities of the first two movements and as balm before the chaos and triumph of the finale, the former strikingly introduced (after too long a gap) and arching through lyrical charge, via Matthias Goerne’s mellifluous summons, foot tapping and visionary episodes, to an ebullient finish, although the chorus seems rather short of personnel and what it lacks in blend is compensated for with enthusiasm. The four soloists all make a fine impression.

This is a set that really must be heard; opinion will be strongly divided and various. (I recall a recital Pletnev gave in London a few years back when a colleague, during our interval chat, reckoned the pianist needed the services of a psychiatrist, while another colleague thought Pletnev’s playing some of the most searching and beautiful he’d ever heard. I inclined more with the “shrink” reference! Some of this recorded “Pastoral” suggests a visit is still needed!)

Oh, there are so many Beethoven symphony cycles out there! From the grandly traditional to the maybe authentic, from large symphony orchestras to chamber ones, from massive conceptions to the so-fast-you-just-missed-it renditions. There’s a mix of these from Pletnev, and not necessarily where you might expect, and, interestingly, he avoids the hybrid charges that Rattle incurred. Of other sets, Bernstein (also DG) is a favorite, and I like Norrington very much (Hänssler), and Gielen’s Hänssler DVDs document the latter’s impressive organic conceptions. Some of Klemperer’s Beethoven is genuinely great (his “Choral” on Testament, the stereo one, on SBT 1177, is a towering achievement—so, too, Solti’s first Chicago recording for Decca). Pletnev, antiphonal violins (double basses to the left) an aural plus-point, with lucid woodwinds and scrupulous detailing adding to the textural felicities, is his own man, a mix of eccentricity and individuality, and seems to owe “nothing to nobody”—although Golovanov and Mengelberg might just be contenders—maybe not even to Beethoven.

FANFARE: Colin Anderson
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in C major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 36 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1801-1802; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1803; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 6 in F major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Written: 1808 
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Angela Denoke (Soprano), Marianna Tarasova (Mezzo Soprano), Matthias Goerne (Baritone),
Endrik Wottrich (Tenor)
Conductor:  Mikhail Pletnev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Moscow Chamber Chorus,  Russian National Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 
Language: German 

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