Beethoven: The Five Piano Concertos

Evgeny Kissin; LSO/Davis (EMI 2063112) | Mikhail Pletnev; RNO/Gansch (DG 477 7475)

28 September 2008 3 stars3.5 stars

Kissin Beethoven Concertos Now an exclusive EMI artist, Evgeny Kissin's second release on the label is this set of the Beethoven concertos; the first, a recording of concertos by Mozart and Schumann, also featured Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

There's no let up in recordings of this repertory and this new set from Kissin is released at the same time as the mid-priced repackaging of another Russian's view of the cycle, Mikhail Pletnev's on DG. And what different recordings they are: neither is universally recommendable but they provide proof, if it were needed, of what remarkably varied treatments these wonderful works can be given, still emerging fresh and infinitely engaging.

It will come as no surprise that Kissin, especially under Davis' experienced eye, turns in the more conventional performances. In his reading the opening movements of all the concertos are significantly longer than Pletnev's and sometimes, as is the case with the third, in particular, sound a touch stately. On the other hand, his finales are spritely; that of the first, despite some astonishing dexterity, is probably too fast, so we lose any sense of playfulness in the syncopation of the A minor episode. Generally, though, Kissin is at his best when he stretches his legs and relaxes and, for that reason, I think the first and second concertos are the most successful. In these two works his strong, fluid technique is placed at the service of relatively straightforward readings. The early pair also react better to the unexpected accents he throws into the mix, and his sometimes forceful way of dealing with some of the counterpoint, although there are times in the second concerto's first movement where the passagework does feel a touch laboured.

Having been disappointed with Kissin's live performance of the third with Davis and the LSO about a year ago, I also find this the least convincing in the set. Here the pianist seems too consciously aware that this is more mature Beethoven and, to my ears, strives too hard to reflect this in his playing. The result is a lack of spontaneity and, with the first movement on the leisurely side, a loss of the playfulness and lightness that is used to contrast so much C minor seriousness. The first movement's second subject, then, lacks elegance and the passage-work sometimes sounds heavy. The first movement's cadenza, in particular, is simply too slow, its F minor final section is not much of a Presto and as a result sounds earthbound. Kissin makes some strange decisions in the Largo, too, and I find the way he voices the opening statement – highlighting the bass line – is unnatural. And despite the excellent work from the LSO winds, balanced a little too far back, in the movement's central section, Kissin's arpeggios are prosaic, compared especially with the swirling fantasy Pletnev brings to them in his recording. The finale is more successful but there are times when Kissin's forceful left hand in particular sounds contrived, and his more straightforward way with the flourish of the small cadenza and the Presto coda only made one wish for greater spontaneity elsewhere.

The approach to the final two concertos is similar but his voicing decisions again cause problems. At around 6'30 in fourth's opening Allegro moderato, for example, the way he accents the bass-line at the expense of the right hand's melody seems peverse. In these two later works, Kissin also sounds uncomfortable with Beethoven's more exploratory textures and when the composer writes a sustained melodic line in the piano's higher register, he is often too forceful, as if he doesn't trust the ear's ability to fill in the cantabile line when the note itself inevitably dies away. After Davis sets the scene beautifully in the fifth's Adagio, for example, Kissin's first entry, high up, jars badly when it should float. He sounds more at home, though, in the big gestures of the 'Emperor' than in the pensive fourth. Again there's a forcefulness that doesn't always convince (his left hand triplets in the fifth's first movement are heavily accented in places) and he shows a reluctance to blend into the background. And although I like his articulation of the snippets of arpeggio at the start of the development section in the fifth's first movement, he obscures much of what's going on in the wind. In both concertos though, and this is a complaint for his cycle in general, there's a feeling of the pianist trying a little too hard to introduce spontaneity by artificial means. However, with Davis at the helm, and the LSO on fine form – there's some wonderful wind playing throughout, in particular – this is an issue (at low-mid price) that provides a lot to enjoy.

Pletnev BeethovenIn some ways, Mikhail Pletnev's Beethoven is impossible to compare to Kissin's. Generally, though, one could sum up their approaches by saying that while Kissin tries hard to inject the occasional surprise into his traditional performances, it's just as big a struggle for Pletnev to inject any semblance of conformity into his consistently unpredictable, tirelessly (or perhaps for some tiringly) probing and original performances. As I've said when I reviewed his disc of the second and fourth Concertos, these performances will probably elicit wildly differing responses.

One thing that cannot be denied, though, is that they display both Pletnev's astonishing technique and incredible musical imagination at every turn. While the quality of the pianism will be universally admired, some will delight at the fact that his every entry seems to contain a surprise while others will wish he could just play something straight for once. I have to admit, I find myself torn between both camps, particularly in the slow movements. To take the third, for example, Pletnev's playing of the Largo's opening statement is more naturally voiced than Kissin's, but he can't resist the temptation to pull the tempo around in a manner that has a certain spontaneity but, also, sounds just a little too free, undermining the music's moving simplicity.

It's interesting that the 'Emperor' is probably the most universally recommendable of the performances. The opening flourishes are improvisatory so can take Pletnev's treatment and I think he gets away with letting the hands deliberately get out of sync in the slow movement, but for most of the rest of the work his own part is so tied in with that of the orchestra that he has to behave. As a result we end up with a performance that has a real intimacy and although the tension between piano and orchestra is there, and there's no lack of power to his playing when required, Pletnev often plays with a Haydnesque lightness and humour that allows us to hear all the detail elsewhere. It's still a performance that's full of surprises as are his versions of the other concertos: Pletnev is light and skittish when one might expect him to be strong and robust - with the Rondo of No.3's main theme, for example, or the sycopation of the first's finale - or heavy-handed when one would expect delicacy, such as in the opening solo of the fourth.

So although Pletnev infuriates in places, he is never dull. Under Christian Gansch the Russian National Orchestra play like a chamber orchestra, with delicacy and lyricism and their mellow wind section is balanced noticeably more sympathetically. All the concertos are given accounts on the fast side and, although the recordings are live, the sound quality is just as good as EMI's studio versions for Kissin.

Although Kissin offers a very respectable survey of these works, at a very reasonable price, his accounts are up against the competition of all his predecessors and as such he fails in his bid to be a front runner. Pletnev seems to be in a category of his own and, love it or loathe it, I feel anyone interested in these works should hear him.

By Hugo Shirley