Mikhail Pletnev in Person = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2; BACH (arr. Busoni): Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in d minor; CHOPIN (arr. Liszt): The Maiden’s Wish, Op. 74, No. 1; TCHAIKOVSKY: Nocturne in c-sharp minor, Op. 19, No. 4; “Course en troika” from The Months, Op. 37a; SCHUBERT: Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat Major; Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, D. 899 – Mikhail Pletnev, piano – Onyx 4110, 61:42 (10/8/13)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Culled from “intermissions” during various recordings sessions, 1996-2005, this recital features Mikhail Pletnev (b. 1957) in performance, from memory, strictly for his own bemusement, occasionally – as in Lucerne 1998 – playing on an instrument of historical significance: in the case of the Schubert pieces, realized on Sergei Rachmaninov’s piano. Not originally intended for publication, the interpretations served to warm Pletnev to the various keyboards at his disposal, retaining a real sense of spontaneity.

The large work, Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2 (1796) from 1996 enjoys a plastic, highly improvisatory treatment from Pletnev, especially in its first movement, which moves into F Major and exhibits Beethoven’s unique sense of color counterpoint.  Polyphony marks much of the D Major Largo appassionato second movement, which like the first displays striking, passing dissonances.  The martial, austere affect finds striking moments of intimacy in Pletnev’s reading. Beethoven did label his third movement Scherzo: Allegretto, in spite of the music’s resembling a graceful minuet. Pletnev’s adjusts his touches to capture at once the music-box and potentially athletic luster of Beethoven’s keyboard sonority.  The forward-looking Rondo: Grazioso finale contains dark elements – in a minor – that advance the sturm und drang of Romanticism.  The entry arpeggio proves protean, shifting in texture and ornamentation.  Sparkling and deliciously nuanced, the performance brings the sonata back its sterling freshness, that disarming sense of architecture and polished expressivity that first struck me when I heard Robert Casadesus in this music some 50 years ago.

It’s rather hard to conceive any pianist employing the 1897 Busoni arrangement of the Bach Chaconne from his Second Violin Partita as a warm-up exercise!  The work proceeds as a series of monolithic tensions and releases, given the medium wishes to approach the symphonic in the keyboard timbre, such as in Busoni’s D Major quasi tromboni indication.  For sheer, resonant power, the Pletnev realization proves as enduring and volatile as those we have from Michelangeli. Some of us film buffs recall the disembodied hand – that of Ervin Nyiregyhazi – in its pounding of the chords of this work in The Beast With 5 Fingers. In Pletnev’s case, some of the knotty figuration causes some slips, but with no diminishment of the emotional effect. The coda, in fact, absolutely transfixes us in an organ sonority whose power will astonish anyone who admires the Busoni achievement here.

Pletnev tones down the atmosphere dramatically (from Basel, 2005) with Chopin’s 1837 Polish song, Zyczenie, as arranged by Franz Liszt. Pletnev takes the faster passages with a gliding insouciance we have not heard since Moritz Rosenthal or Jorge Bolet. The contemporaneous two Tchaikovsky pieces bespeak that degree of testnota or aggrieved nostalgia that suffuses the composer’s recollections of childhood innocence.  The November troika projects a naïve optimism as sweetly energetic as it is soulful.

Pletnev concludes with those same two Schubert impromptus Lipatti chose for his 1950 Besancon recital that marked his untimely farewell to this world.  Liquid, witty, and beautifully poised, Pletnev’s brilliant rendition of the etude-like E-flat Impromptu anticipates much of Chopin while still projecting much of its Austro-Hungarian sensibility.  A breathed, natural aristocracy defines Pletnev’s G-flat Impromptu, a tribute to the pianist’s capacity to render the piano into a singing instrument.  If such incandescent playing emerges in his intermissions, we can only imagine what music enchants us when he means it.

—Gary Lemco