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Jessica Duchen
Monday 12th July 2010
You look away for two minutes and...

OK, admittedly it was two weeks rather than two minutes, but it does seem that as soon as you go on holiday, things start happening.

First, I missed the Faure series of BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week, despite having been extensively involved in it (see my post 'Foraging around Faure'). Then I missed Mahler's birthday, though Norman Lebrecht has been writing enough about him to make one blogpost more, or one less, basically irrelevant. Since the anniversary celebrations will continue well into next year, which marks the centenary of the composer's death, I should have a little time to catch up.

But next there was the sorry case of Mikhail Pletnev, Russian pianist and conductor supreme, who was arrested in Thailand on suspicion of paedophile activities, charges that he denies. The fact that he was allowed to leave Thailand to give a concert and has now returned to Russia might possibly indicate that the 20-year jail sentence he could face is unlikely to happen. (Unlike conductor Robert King, who did time, if less of it.)

This incident has sparked much discussion in online newsgroups and forums, some of it asking whether these charges (which are only charges - he's innocent until proven guilty) now make listening to his performances and recordings an 'unpleasant experience'.

Ho-hum: this would be a dubious way indeed to assess musical performance. There've been plenty of unfortunate characters throughout musical history whose personal inclinations - rampant promiscuity, drug addiction, alcoholism, unpalatable political stances or generally shitty behaviour towards other people - have made no difference at all to the revelatory qualities of their artistry.

But as far as I'm concerned, listening to Pletnev has always been a fairly unpleasant experience. I can't remember actually enjoying a single piece of music as conveyed by him. I admire and respect his pianistic ability, his technical bedazzlements, his arrangements of Tchaikovsky ballet music, etc, but emotionally his interpretations have left me cold since the very beginning. That has nothing to do with anything in his personal life or character; it's just the nature of his musicianship.

Since I was not a fan in the first place I wasn't surprised to read that in BBC Music Magazine's poll of the 20 all-time greatest pianists, in which the journal asked 100 well-known pianists to name their top three, Pletnev garnered not a single vote.

Not that we should read too much into that. Of the pianists who did make the top 20, only four are actually alive. They are: Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia. And none were in the top five, who emerged as: Sergei Rachmaninov, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter and Alfred Cortot. Others pianists who did not attract any votes included Evgeny Kissin and Maurizio Pollini, while Barenboim only had one vote, from one of his proteges.

As you'll have gathered, I'm slightly 'off' piano recitals at the moment.... Never mind; the Proms start on Friday!

 

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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