Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 3

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 3
PERFORMER: Mikhail Pletnev (piano); Russian National Orchestra/Christian Gansch
CATALOGUE NO: 477 6415
Never has it been harder to decide on a star rating for a performance. Listening to Mikhail Pletnev in both concertos there were times when I genuinely wondered if even five stars wasn’t insulting to playing of such glorious playful penetration. Familiar phrases spring to life or sing out with a poised intensity that takes the ear completely by surprise – and yet also feels so natural and right. Then the next minute Pletnev does something that makes you howl with disbelief. Why the weird jerky rubato just before the first return of the main finale theme in the First Concerto? And the glittering extraoctave downward glissando at the climax of No. 1’s first movement is horribly like a piece of tinsel stuck in the middle of an oil painting – more Liberace than Beethoven. How could the man who played the preceding pianissimo chordal sequence with such entrancing delicacy do that?

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Fortunately there is no such wilful weirdness in the first movement of No. 3 – generally an impressive reading. But the expression in the central Largo again teeters between delightful spontaneity and not so delightful mannerism. In the finale too Pletnev kept reminding me of the later Glenn Gould: insight more or less balanced by sheer off-the-wall oddity. As a one-off experience it’s very entertaining, but it doesn’t bear repetition. Fortunately there is an identical coupling which offers insight, humour and magic comparable to the best of Pletnev with far greater intellectual and stylistic consistency: Rudolf Serkin on Telarc – technically less steady at nearly 80, but musically commanding throughout. Stephen Johnson