Piano Sonatas in C, K330; in A, K331; in F, K332; in C minor, K457
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Recorded in June 2005 in Stadt-Casino (Musiksaal), Basel
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: February 2006
CD No: DG 477 5788
Duration: 71 minutes
This is as contrary and frustrating a set of performances as you are likely to listen to … Or is it?
Great performances of Mozart (such as by Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer and Wilhelm Kempff) are noted for naturalness, subtlety, purity, and, above all, humility; Pletnev’s renditions are quite the opposite: mannered to the point of perversity.
Nothing is more peculiar than the first movement of the C major sonata; Pletnev takes one of Mozart’s most classical (and superficially conventional) designs and transforms it into a romantic excursion, characterised by extreme rubato, and stop-and-start effects as if driving in a traffic jam. Why, for example, should the second subject be announced as if with a giant signpost? The slow movement, on the other hand, benefits such romanticism, and, although there are bizarre moments, has a beautiful, haunting minor-key episode. Then, in the finale, why does Pletnev make the first note (and its iterations) ring out so excessively? Why does the harmonic nuance (in bar 153; the F natural against the E natural) just before the last return of the theme need to be so enormously highlighted?
Pletnev plays like a conversationalist who laughs at his own jokes, a correspondent who underlines every significant word. It seems easier to play Mozart in a mannered way than to attempt originality within the constraints of the form. If you think Mozart is about the flow of the music, you will be outraged that Pletnev takes every opportunity to break the music up into chunks, to the extent that the punctuation becomes more noticeable than what it punctuates.
Of course, Pletnev’s legendary technique is to the fore; the sparkling finger-work of K332’s finale and its complete clarity are entrancing. Yet in this sonata, too, there is a very noticeable change of gear at the start of the first movement development, and an excess of sentiment in the Adagio.
Over the course of this selection of sonatas, the contrariness of Pletnev’s approach becomes even more apparent. K457, written in the dramatic key of C minor, is given a curiously muted account. K331, the most familiar of all the sonatas, by virtue of its ‘Turkish rondo’ finale, is played not with the mannered originality one might expect but almost completely ‘straight,’ to the extent that the rondo is tediously repetitive (although the preceding Minuet is very beautiful).
So this is the frustration: Pletnev is perfectly capable of ravishing phrasing (the start of K332’s slow movement, the beautifully gradated left-hand in the main rondo theme of K330’s finale, and the shape of K331’s trio theme). The Blüthner piano, chosen by Pletnev himself, also has an intrinsically winning tone; its sweetness ideal for the pianist’s heart-on-sleeve approach. On the other hand, the extreme nature of most of the renditions means it is neither especially pleasurable on first acquaintance, nor does it seem to reward repeated listening.
We all know that Pletnev is a master pianist who could find a thousand different interpretations of these pieces. Based on the knowledge that he has frequently not used all the time available to him in a studio session, suggests that he might have recorded this disc in minimum time, based on whatever spontaneity (or whimsy) inspired him then. On a different day, it could have been different – perhaps a point he would wish to make.
One might say this in defence of Pletnev. Art is meant to surprise and confound, not to reassure. As the Russian Formalists said, its function is to “make the familiar strange”. There is apposite support from Glenn Gould – apposite as K330 is rather Gould-like in its percussive treatment – who believed that there was no point in any performance that merely reproduced the expectations of the audience. This philosophy underlies a great deal of modern art – such as the Tate bricks or the pickled sheep – that Art’s function is to ask what Art itself is. All the more point then to issue in a year awash with Mozart homage Pletnev’s oblique and troubling interpretations. His reputation gives him the authority to be eccentric, even contrived. An unknown pianist would be condemned and told that he fundamentally misunderstood Mozart. As it’s Pletnev, his view is either puzzling or thought-provoking.