Beethoven

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Complete Symphonies
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/
Mikhail Pletnev

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CATALOGUE NO: 477 6409
On the back of this boxed set, we are told that Pletnev’s ‘interpretations seek to generate a new image of Beethoven as our contemporary, bringing his works into the here and now, with “every phrase, scream, and moment of joy lived through as intensely as in our real lives”.’ That sounds impressive, though there is a clear sense in which one hopes that every interpreter of these and any other great works will have the same ambition. Pletnev presumably thinks that the symphonies have tended to become museum pieces, and in the hands of some performers that is regrettably true. So how do these accounts compare with others of roughly similar intent?

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Pletnev uses a fairly small orchestra until he gets to the Ninth, and large parts of many of the performances could be from any one of a dozen recent recordings. Tempos on the whole are brisk, timpani, as in many current accounts, are encouraged to drown the rest of the orchestra whenever they have the chance. The main difference from any other performances I have is the quite incredible degree to which tempos are pulled around in order to make a particular effect. It’s the kind of thing that people routinely attribute to ‘Romantic’ or ‘subjective’ conductors, but carried far further. The opening phrases of the Pastoral Symphony, for instance, are half the speed of the rest of the movement; even more outrageously, the Fifth begins strongly, but each time the horns enter with the second subject, they wilt into sudden quiet lassitude. Whenever a passage is marked ‘dolce’ Pletnev puts on the brakes, with debilitating effect. The first movement of the Eroica suffers most; those famous dissonant chords are, so to speak, put in italics, and there are so many fluctuations that I felt seasick by the end of the movement. Oddly enough, the other movements tend to be treated in a much more straightforward way, but not one which marks a notable difference between these and performances under Mackerras or Haitink, to mention two far superior recent sets. All told this is a big and bewildering disappointment. Michael Tanner