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Sonata; Lyric Pieces; 7 Fugues.
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon DG 459 671-2; 75 mins.

Grieg is a curious case, a minor master who is probably best known for his piano concerto and Peer Gynt music, and is loved by amateur pianists who generally have copies of some of his Lyric Pieces and enjoy playing them. His string quartet and sonatas are heard from time to time, likewise some of the songs, and a rediscovered early symphony created a stir a decade ago. Three recordings are available and Grieg has generally been well served by the recording industry.

There is a notable CD devoted solely to Grieg's Lyric Pieces by no less a pianist than Emil Gilels [DG 449 721-2GOR] but this present, wisely devised, programme is a better introduction to his solo piano music in my view. There are no masterpieces, but several gems. The seven Fugues were student exercises from 1861, never published in his lifetime but neither were they repudiated or destroyed. They are clearly Bach derived and include an elaborate double fugue. Pletnev makes an excellent case for them and this, their first recording, is amply justified. These fugues also serve to remind of Pletnev's fresh approach to older music - his 1994 double-CD of thirty Scarlatti sonatas [EMI Virgin Classics VCD5 45123 2] is one of my favourite piano recordings, far more interesting (to me) than a more recent one by Perahia which gained a Gramophone award.

The four movement Sonata Op 7 of a few years later is rather a heavy affair which I have played without great enthusiasm, save for its peculiar so-called Minuet which, as the liner notes say, justifies its name 'only by dint of the time-signature'. That was included in a piano anthology which I have known since childhood. But under Pletnev's hands it is all clarified and lightened, and brought to vivid life - certainly well worth hearing and having recorded.

The cunning of this programme derives from the appreciation that the Lyric Pieces, Grieg's most important contribution to the piano literature, are best heard in fairly small groups; Pletnev gives us a dozen, which is enough. There are ten volumes, 66 pieces in all, in the tradition of romantic piano pieces by Schumann and Mendelssohn. They have titles suggesting extra-musical influences and some, such as To Spring and Butterfly are quite popular. The snag is that the majority are in a strict ternary form, which makes great demands upon the pianist's sensibilities if the predictable repeats are not to pall.

I was taught to savour Grieg's unique harmony, and to think back to it as if new-minted. Bellringing is positively avant-garde with its accumulation of parallel fifths (nearly twenty years before Debussy's Cathedrale engloutie). One of my own favourites, from the delightful Op. 57 book, is Vanished Days, described aptly by Joachim Dorfmuller as having outer sections 'melancholically dramatic and harmonically daring', framing an elegant springar. His essay puts the music in clear perspective, DG's studio recording is excellent.

Mikhail Pletnev demonstrates again and again that transcendent pianism is not just a matter of speed and prestidigitation; equally important is the voicing of chords and precise management of minute inflections of melodic shapes and overall rubato. In these performances one welcomes the repeats and I look forward to sharing my enjoyment of this marvellous CD.


Peter Grahame Woolf


Gerald Fenech

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