Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Russian National Orchestra
Recorded on 3 September 2006 in Beethovenhalle, Bonn
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2008
CD No: DG 477 6417
Duration: 38 minutes
Whimsical and quixotic – the familiar hallmarks of Mikhail Pletnev are all present in the majestic opening bars – a pause here, some deliberation there and, then, a corresponding flurry forward to compensate. When this curtain-raising parade is over, Christian Gansch lets the Russian National Orchestra off its leash for a demonstration of fiery impetus – or maybe the players are letting off pent-up frustration. And so the first movement continues with tempos and emphases not quite as we know them. That’s all well and good. But does it convince? Some of the athletic passages have breathtaking bravura and dynamism – this a pianist driving along the autobahn, foot down, enjoying the wind in his hair, and sometimes slowing to view an afar image. One eye then strays off the road, never endangering life and limb, but likely to cross a lane or two. Fortunately Gansch is a good map-reader and the orchestra members are not back-seat drivers – woodwinds are loquacious confreres and the conductor knows the advantage of antiphonal violins and encourages gutsy (left-positioned) double basses.
There’s light and shade too, and dynamic contrasts. This first-movement ride really is quite exhilarating and involving; a bit of a mystery tour, too – here and throughout, passages that can seem tired in other performances are rejuvenated and have a spring in their step: in the outer movements this is an ‘Emperor’ with a ruddy complexion and purpose of stride. Like or not what Pletnev does, he is in swashbuckling form and also exhibits an enviable refinement and clarity. It’s the diversions that can be troublesome and there’s also a distracting sense of over-contrivance. There are though some sublime things in the Adagio – a good, old-fashioned, full-toned and heavenly-length account – but one not static (Pletnev and strict tempo rarely have confluence) and the finale is a sweeping feast of energy, superbly poised.
With a playing time of 15 seconds short of 38 minutes (and this timing includes applause!) and with music that has been recorded so many times before, this performance has to be ultra-special. It can be exactly that. Captured in up-front sound, this is a distinctive and cobweb-clearing rendition that carves a niche all its own in the catalogue.