Mikhail Pletnev’s mother was a pianist and his father an accordion teacher who had a diploma in conducting from the Gnessin Institute of Music in Moscow. Pletnev’s early years were spent in Kazan where he learnt to play many instruments, and at the age of thirteen he went to the Central Music School in Moscow where he studied piano with Yevgeny Timakin. At seventeen Pletnev continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Yakov Flier and, from 1977, with Lev Vlasenko. Pletnev’s first award was received in Paris, where at sixteen he won the Grand Prix at the International Jeunesses Musicales Competition. Four years later he won a gold medal at the All-Union Competition. When he was twenty-one Pletnev won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was thus able to perform and tour outside of the USSR, to Europe, Japan, the United States and Israel.
In 1980 Pletnev made his debut as a conductor, and as a guest conductor has worked with many orchestras including the Philharmonia, London Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. With private funding Pletnev was able to found the Russian National Orchestra made up of players from former state-subsidised ensembles. In 1999 Vladimir Spivakov took over, but his tenure was short-lived as Pletnev returned in 2002.
As pianist, Pletnev has appeared with the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors including Carlo Maria Giulini, Lorin Maazel, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly and Bernard Haitink. In 1997 Pletnev performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado in a New Year’s Eve concert that was televised worldwide; in December 2000 he was invited to be soloist at the first concert of the new China Philharmonic Orchestra; and in November 2001 Pletnev performed all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi.
Pletnev is also a composer and his works include Triptych for Symphony Orchestra, Fantasy on Kazakh Themes for violin and orchestra, a viola concerto, a ‘Classical’ symphony and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra. He has also arranged Beethoven’s violin concerto for clarinet.
An extraordinary technique of digital dexterity allows Pletnev to play anything, but the general criticism of his playing is that he is cool, detached and cold-blooded, that there is no warmth to the music he produces, that his interpretations are analytical and devoid of passion. This certainly was not true at the beginning of his career as his early recordings prove. Pletnev’s own favourite pianists are Michelangeli, Horowitz, Richter and Rachmaninov.
Pletnev has recorded a great deal. His early recordings, made for Melodya, include a disc containing Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83, and Pletnev’s own arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker and Shchedrin’s Anna Karenina. This has since been reissued on compact disc as Volume 9 of BMG’s Russian Piano School Series. Melodya have also issued live recordings of Pletnev’s recitals in Russia. One of the most impressive is a 2-LP set of the recital of 2 October 1982 given in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, when he played two piano sonatas by Schubert and a group of Liszt compositions including a wonderful La Leggierezza and a stunning Mephisto-Waltz. An encore of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Serenade showed Pletnev’s warm tone quality at that stage of his career.
Other live performances from the late 1970s include an extraordinary Étude Op. 25 No. 6 in G sharp minor by Chopin and Liszt’s ‘Paganini’ Étude No. 2 in E flat. One of his best live performances is of Bach’s Suite in A minor BWV 818a. Among Pletnev’s favourite composers is Tchaikovsky, and for Melodya he recorded the Piano Sonata in G major Op. 37, the Children’s Album Op. 39, The Months Op. 37a, the Eighteen Pieces Op. 72 and Three Pieces Op. 9. A recording of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, although a Melodya recording, was in fact made in January 1984 at the studios of Bavarian Radio, and is coupled with other works of Liszt.
During the 1980s Pletnev recorded for Virgin. Most of these recordings are very fine indeed and highlights include Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev. Apart from the three piano concertos, Pletnev gives a thrilling account of the rarely heard Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra Op. 56. Two discs of Scarlatti sonatas won an award from The Gramophone magazine in 1996, and a recording of his arrangement of music from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is coupled with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. His best Virgin disc is a recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Libor Pešek. Pletnev gives a wild and Romantic reading, but in the slow movement there is some beautiful playing with a wonderful warm tone quality. In fact, the Virgin recordings are the best of Pletnev’s discs as a certain coolness began to pervade his music-making from the early 1990s.
From 1996 Pletnev has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. His first disc, a Chopin recital, was controversial, receiving criticism for its individuality as had a Chopin disc he made for Virgin in 1990. Stephen Plaistow found Pletnev’s recording of the Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35 for Virgin ‘superb’, but found the Deutsche Grammophon disc ‘a great disappointment’ with ‘distortions and disfigurement’ throughout. However, what Pletnev does is play these familiar works in a way that is unfamiliar, allowing himself time to breathe at the ends of phrases, and using a pliable rubato that made these well known works sound new and fresh. He does however seem to play at rapid tempi for no particular reason other than because he is able to do so.
A Liszt recital disc from 1998 includes a new recording of the Piano Sonata in B minor which is preferable to the earlier recording. Pletnev is more expansive if rather cool, but the whole work is overall more satisfying. It is not easy to agree with journalist Lynda Greene when she writes that ‘…allegations of “cool”pianism seem ill-placed’when one listens to a live recording of a concert given at New York’s Carnegie Hall in November 2000 and issued by Deutsche Grammophon. Everything is on the surface, whether Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111 or Balakirev’s Islamey which is given a virtuoso performance of great speed but little musical content. Pletnev is better in a disc of works by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and a disc of works recorded on Rachmaninov’s own piano has a novelty value. Of a new disc of Schumann works including the Études Symphoniques Op. 13 Bryce Morrison wrote that when hearing Pletnev’s ‘…frequent lapses into bombast… you are sadly aware of the difference between self-serving rhetoric and genuine musicianship.’
Undoubtedly Pletnev is a great pianist, if a controversial one. His admirers applaud him for what his detractors deplore, but he is never uninteresting, and at times sheds new light on familiar works.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).