Sonatas, Opp.14/2 & Op.53 Waldstein
The Four Scherzos
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Reviewed by: Jason Boyd
Reviewed: 26 November, 2000
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
As part of the Barbican’s Great Performers series, Pletnev appeared calm and collected as he took a slow stroll up to the piano… but burst into Beethoven’s Sonata No.10 before the audience’s applause had subsided. This sense of eager impatience prevailed throughout his recital. Not a performer to bask in ovation, Pletnev gave the impression of having a job to do and wanting to do it well. The Op 14 was whimsical and, at times, light-hearted, something emphasised through Pletnev’s comical shrugging of his shoulders. He appeared to be in animated conversation with the piano, the two joking and laughing to pass the time of day. However, Pletnev achieved a smooth transition where the thematic blurring of the Allegro’s development turns unexpectedly serious.
Pletnev’s technical control was particularly evident in the great Waldstein Sonata – the introductory quaver figuration was repeated with frightening speed, coupled with accurate precision and evenness. The rondo finale, for this evening only, was arranged for piano and fire alarm – the latter’s distinct whirring sound joined in with Pletnev towards the end. Although taken a little by surprise, Pletnev confirmed his professionalism by nonchalantly continuing and holding the audience’s attention. In fact, this may have spurred-on Pletnev’s particular lavishness in forte sections in which he succeeded in completely drowning-out this unfortunate noise.
Chopin’s scherzos are a far cry from the original meaning of the term, that of cheerful jocularity. There is nothing light-hearted; they are an intense display of emotion. Playing with the same zeal as for Beethoven, Pletnev sounded his return with the two agonising chords that begin the first in B minor, unleashing the whirlwind of semiquavers outrageously fast, but still with acute evenness and clarity. Pletnev played with greater introspection and with more gradation of dynamics for the more textually varied second scherzo. Chopin painstakingly slaved over his scores to create the desired effect of apparent effortlessness; Pletnev takes a similar approach and proves a suitable mediator between modern-day audiences and Chopin’s soundworld. The chorale-like second theme in No.3 is extended with a cascading flourish of pianistic glitter, which Pletnev played with an unsurpassed ethereal beauty. For me it was this work that stood out.
I was also impressed by Pletnev’s lack of flamboyance in his body movements that can make some recitals something of a circus act. All his control came from the lower arms, wrists and fingers, thus not detracting from the sound he was carefully crafting. One felt that Pletnev had made friends with the piano in Beethoven; then with Chopin he recognised the piano’s expressive abilities. The piano is not something to be conquered but treated with respect, which helps reveal the subtlest poeticism if the performer has the capabilities and correct attitude towards the instrument.
I was thoroughly absorbed. Four encores later – ending with Balakirev’s Islamey – Pletnev received rapturous applause and a standing ovation in recognition of a wonderful recital, which confirmed Pletnev’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest pianists