Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor; Après une lecture de Dante; Funérailles; Gnomenreigen

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WORKS: Piano Sonata in B minor; Après une lecture de Dante; Funérailles; Gnomenreigen
PERFORMER: Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 457 629-2
The Grandioso theme of the B minor Sonata, its bass tracing the enigmatic opening scale of the work, its hammering chords turning the piano into a temple of epic resonance, is an unforgettable moment of high Romanticism. There’s a wonderful description in Beckett’s Liszt biography – the heroic composer, ‘the ardent virtuoso, head thrown back… face responding to the ecstatic fullness of the music’. Pletnev is neither heroic nor ardent. This is an antiseptic, untensioned, climactically cautious remake, curiously un-Russian, concerned more with perfection at arm’s length than passion from within. The B minor ought to seize you by the throat. Notwithstanding a meaningful reprise and an Arrau-like dry, short final low B (the dream broken), this one – soft-boned and clean-shaven – scarcely begins to gloss the emotions. The great Russian performances of the past (Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – all significantly quicker), and by Pletnev’s own peers from the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition (Judd, Demidenko) occupy another plane of experience, confrontationally more volcanic and high-risk, the puissance course of the music not so much looked at as taken. If Pletnev has anything to say, it’s not apparent through the de-energising veils of low-voltage efficiency with which he surrounds himself. The Dante Sonata coheres better, though not before musings that sound like someone casually trying out the instrument, and double-octave runs more fragile-tissued than muscular. Funérailles passes by – as coolly note-perfect as Gnomenreigen. If you like the famous left hand octave gyrations dry and impeccable, then Pletnev’s your man. But not Liszt’s – who wanted them pedalled, the jangled, anarchic terror of their nightmare roar cumulatively shattering the eardrums if not the strings. A mystifyingly impersonal release. Ates Orga