Mikhail Pletnev / Christian Gansch

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3

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Brilliantly virtuosic, wildly eccentric, and relentlessly hyped up, the first volume in Russian pianist/conductor Mikhail Pletnev cycle of the complete concertos and symphonies of Beethoven is challenging, exhilarating, and exhausting. In these 2006 recordings of the C major and C minor piano concertos made at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, there's no doubting Pletnev's technique -- it's impeccable -- no denying Pletnev's sincerity -- it's unimpeachable -- and no evading Pletnev's intensity -- it's implacable. His tempos are hard driven, his dynamics are exaggerated, his entrances are imposing, and his attacks are simply frightening. Most egregiously, Pletnev's idiosyncratic articulation sometimes distorts Beethoven's themes -- listen to his phrasing in the C major Concerto's finale -- and thus often fatally disrupts Beethoven's lines. Even in the concertos' central Largos, Pletnev pushes too hard, putting too much into the music expressively to get much out of the music emotionally. Make no mistake: with the excellent Russian National Orchestra, a strong and colorful ensemble, and the help of Christian Gansch on the podium, an unassuming and supportive conductor, Pletnev turns in technically astounding performances -- but by distorting and disrupting Beethoven, Pletnev has also turned in performances that tell the listener much more about the performer than they do about the music. Deutsche Grammophon's live digital sound puts the listener in the hall with the rest of the audience -- albeit about 10 feet in the air above the orchestra.

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