Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Mikhail Pletnev (piano); Russian National Orchestra/Christian Gansch
Mikhail Pletnev’s avowed aim is to make Beethoven’s living presence felt, and to that end his interpretation of the Emperor Concerto is unashamedly rhapsodic and impulsive. Purists are probably unlikely to make it beyond the famous cadenza‑like opening bars, which are played with spasmodic freedom; but those who stay the course are likely to find themselves alternately engrossed and flummoxed. Certainly, the opening movement’s second subject, which sets off with a delicate turn to the minor, is quite beautifully played; and so, too, for all its extreme rubato, is the slow movement. But elsewhere, the sudden lurches in tempo do considerable damage to Beethoven’s large-scale structures. Why, after the chromatic ascent that marks the soloist’s re-entry at the end of the long orchestral tutti, does Pletnev linger so long over the first movement’s main theme? Why does he indulge in a huge ritardando at the approach to the first reprise of the finale’s rondo theme? In the end, it’s difficult not to feel that the performance needs to be more charismatic if it’s going to get away with being so idiosyncratic. For an Emperor played by a maverick (and again extravagantly occupying an entire CD), try Michelangeli. I am by no means an unreserved admirer of his Beethoven, but this work suits his aristocratic style down to the ground.