Itzhak Perlman at Strathmore 

(published first at ionarts)

This weekend I thought I'd get my violinist fix, and no 18 hours after seeing Hilary Hahn I was back in the Strathmore Hall to hear Itzhak Perlman in the first recital at that venue.

If I go to a concert, by the way, I do not want to hear a slew of inane speeches: Neale Perl (President of WPAS) bored me out of my mind with his list of every half-important donor and official that may or may not have been in the audience. Before him, Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County Executive, tested my patience. Fortunately, the talking came to an end after what seemed like ten minutes, and Mr. Perlman walked out on stage with the help of his crutches and leg-braces. When he picks up the violin though, notions of frailty or restriction dissipate at once. I mention this, because in many ways this transformation is similar to the experience of seeing Thomas Quasthoff come on stage and then fill an entire opera house with his booming sound.

In Mozart's E minor violin sonata (KV 304), Messrs. Perlman and Rohan DeSilva performed amiably together, and especially DeSilva's confident playing was appealing as he felt no need for dynamic and volume limitations while playing next to his far more famous colleague.

Itzhak PerlmanThe intro to Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata exposed a weakness in Perlman's playing that reinforced suspicions still lingering from the Mozart. Stability, the tightness of the vibrato and intonation were—under pressure, at least—less than we are used from the maestro. The piano playing continued to be faultless, even in the second movement's Andante con Variazioni, where the lengths can sometimes get to the accompanist. Perlman's performance was still impressive on many levels but posed the question of whether there is simply an unavoidable expiration date on violinists (or singers, for that matter), after which it becomes very difficult to make up with experience for lack of ease of technical execution and, simply, youth.

Meanwhile, coughing and cell phone discipline are not quite where they ought to be yet at Strathmore. Like on Saturday, I felt like Hans Castorp between movements… everyone hacked away at once.

The "North Bethesda Premiere" (so Perlman's remark) of Episodes for Violin and Piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwillich met with considerable enthusiasm, though Perlman's humorous telling them of how "Episode" had been tailored to his taste certainly helped. The work is more than a cut above the Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1, that was Joan Tower's contribution the night before. While the 'lyrical episode' made me wonder at a few mute musical points, the 'rhythm episode' was a little marvel and delight that effectively showcased that Perlman's fingers still are fleet.

The two vignettes of Smetana's From the Homeland showed Perlman at his best, closing the program on a good note, topped only by the four encores: Kreisler "in the style of Pugnani," among other things, which led Perlman to observe that apparently "they were all dying for some piece of good old-fashioned Pugnani" back then. In his element with the encores, Perlman had the audience laugh, applaud, chuckle and then on their feet as one, a happy ending to a concert that may have forecast the near end of his performing career.

See also Joan Reinthaler, Intimate Perlman, Cavernous Strathmore (Washington Post, February 22).


Hilary Hahn at Strathmore 

(published first at ionarts)

It was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro-ride from D.C.), and it offered Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop. From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) Uncommon Woman, No. 1, had a proper forward edge. These works that opened the evening need no comment, especially since Tim Page said everything there is to be said about Joan Tower's work in his review on Saturday.

Hilary Hahn

Marin Alsop
The Prokofiev does deserve mention, however. The pianissimo start was so delicate that some in the audience hadn't even noticed that Marin Alsop was already under way. Hilary Hahn, a graceful, rather lithe thing in a beautiful green skirt (all too often, the female musician's choice in clothing is woefully over the top or downright painful... simple elegance, as here, is rare enough to warrant mention) went right with the delicate opening and played with the lightness of a squirrel in ballet class.

She seems so completely involved with her playing that her every motion becomes part of the music, not part of a show (à la Salerno-Sonnenberg). Left-hand pizzicato amid furious runs in the 2nd movement? No problem. Like a musical spider did her left hand ensure near perfection while her right hand turned the notes into beautiful music. Her modern French instrument, a bit more nasal than old Italians but with a clarity—almost glassiness—that I cherished in the Prokofiev only accentuated her clean style and ability.

A cell phone rang—fortunately?—exactly between the 2nd and 3rd movements. Perhaps I will be deemed unduly cruel, but I think that for a year, across all orchestra homes in the world, performances should stop upon a cell phone ringing and not resume until the culprit has stood up to acknowledge the shame. Hilary Hahn, who does not look the 25 years she is, had a mature grasp of the Moderato that (I feel like paraphrasing Tim Page again) ought to have convinced every audience member of the beauty of the work, if not Prokofiev’s music altogether.

Brahms's Symphony No. 3, as announced by the associate principle horn's preconcert speech (too long by nine-tenths), is indeed a difficult work to bring off successfully. I found that phrases in the opening got lost because of some odd accentuations. Unlike the Prokofiev, where the orchestra was either marvelous or Hilary Hahn too good for me to notice weakness behind her, the Brahms exposed rather limp and blasé playing. Bowings among violins were just approximately in sync and the first violinist's engaged moves (antics?) became more a distraction than anything else. Successive movements had moments of real beauty—like the clarinets in the opening of the Andante—but were brought home more safely than with inspiration. The finale (Allegro) had admirable drive and energy. With all the bravos hurled at Marin Alsop, she felt compelled to delight the audience with a Hungarian Dance as an encore.

For a brilliant Prokofiev violin concerto in a beautiful and good-sounding hall, the trip to Strathmore was eminently worth it, even if Montgomery County's "no smoking… not even outside!" policy left me fuming.

Added Commentary by Charles T. Downey:

I, too, leapt at the chance to hear Hilary Hahn at Strathmore Saturday night. I have been waiting for the opportunity to listen to the violinist who had Terry Teachout positively enraptured last December. The rest of the concert was pleasant enough but nothing deserving much mention. The pairing of Copland's fanfare with Tower's only served to point out the deficiencies of the latter piece. Copland made something iconic, while Tower has made something sadly derivative.

The final piece on the program, the Brahms Third, is a piece that probably does nothing to alleviate harpist Helen Radice's recently expressed doubts about that composer's often difficult music at her blog, twang twang twang. It has a stunning third movement (Poco allegretto), which is one of my favorites, but as a complete work it may be the least satisfying of the four symphonies. (Since Helen has called the German Requiem the "fourth most tedious piece in the world"—a work whose beauty obsessed me as an undergraduate that I listened to it daily for about a year—I doubt that my recommendation of the first piano concerto as an antidote to Brahmsophobia will be of any help to Helen. Fortunately, we don't all have to like the same music. Helen's Brahms backlash cannot have been any worse than what greeted me after expressing my indifference to certain long half-hours in the operas of Wagner.)

The problem with the Brahms in this particular performance was a lack of rhythmic unity, stemming in the first movement from what, to me, looked like nearly unreadable gestures from the conductor, Marin Alsop. She did a good job of providing nice dynamic contrasts and carefully brought out delicate inner voicings, but the pacing seemed ossified at times. There was a similar problem with ensemble in my beloved third movement, where the wind players were clearly having trouble at times following Ms. Alsop's occasionally erratic direction. She is an acrobatic conductor, full of energy and clearly talented, but I wonder just what her extravagant gestures communicate to her players, especially when her movements take her hands below stand level.

Never mind, since it was the Prokofiev that we really came to hear. Hilary Hahn (whose Web site is a wonderful place to poke around), we were reminded by the opening comments, is a Baltimore girl, and she had some of her earliest musical experiences with the Baltimore Symphony. Let me assure you that her hometown was glad to welcome her back. In her black chemise and apple-green silk skirt, she would have had a supportive audience no matter how she had played. Make no mistake, however, she played this concerto to within an inch of its proverbial life. It is a happy, almost airy, piece, unusual for Prokofiev, and it seems to be related to the feeling of a composer on his way out of Russia, sinking into chaos as it was in 1917, on his way to Europe by way of Siberia. Ms. Hahn gave us a shimmering opening over the buzzing sounds of the orchestral introduction, leading into a virtuoso display of good tone all over her instrument's strings (strong and husky on the G string and pure and soaring on the E string), hypnotic accuracy on double stops and silky fantasy in the harmonics, shrieking glissando effects and rasping mute sounds.

As for the idiot's cell phone ringing between the 2nd and 3rd movements, which Jens mentions, I prefer the reaction of that conductor in Copenhagen, who stopped a piece when he heard a cell phone ringing, waited for it to stop, and then began again from the beginning. The third movement (Moderato) began like the wheezing of an old clock, over which Ms. Hahn's violin soared on a folk-like melody. This gave me the chance to appreciate her vibrato, which is pronounced enough to give the line life but not so much that it obscures the sense of true pitch. There really was no technical flaw in her performance, aside from the occasional tiny imperfection (shockingly rare with Ms. Hahn) there to reassure you that you are listening to a live performance. Not only is Hilary Hahn a true virtuoso, she is a consummate musician, aware when her part is an accompaniment to the orchestra (and not vice-versa) and, in a rare moment when Prokofiev does not call on her in this concerto, directing appreciatively with her chin the music she hears from her colleagues. The greatest tribute was from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who stood up at the end of the concerto, clearly moved, to shake hands effusively with Ms. Hahn. I am sad that I did not know, as critic Daniel Ginsberg (there for the Washington Post) told us at the intermission, that more applause might have convinced Ms. Hahn to play an encore before intermission. That would have been worthwhile.


Mathias Goerne in Schumann 

(published first at ionarts)

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Robert Schumann, Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider
Matthias Goerne is undoubtedly one of the foremost baritones of his generation, and thanks to the support of his current record label, Decca, he enjoys a visibility (or audibility, if you wish) like few other Lieder-singers.

His recent Winterreise with Alfred Brendel on the same label (he had already done the Winterreise once with Graham Johnson for the Hyperion complete Schubert Song series) was a tremendous success, and while it did not replace long-cherished favorites of mine (Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Jörg Demus, Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten—the latter for the piano playing), it offered dramatic insights and plenty of musicality to cherish. His Schöne Müllerin with regular accompanist Eric Schneider at the piano that came before is even more successful.

Little wonder that expectations should be high for his disc of Schumann songs. The recording is difficult to assess: the first few listenings were rather a disappointment, a mixed bag at the least, mostly because of the songs themselves. The arrangement's logic and order escapes me, and not all songs are equally strong. Schumann may be popularly underestimated for his output after 1849, but at least his songs are far less obviously beautiful and more difficult to absorb. But even some of the works that came out of the productive year of 1840 fall short of his most beautiful.

The dramatic ballades that Goerne chooses—Belsazar, Die beiden Granadiere, and Die Löwenbraut—offer their greatness only very reluctantly. Indeed, Die Löwenbraut may just not have any. For a lover of Schumann, clearly, these reservations are of little concern; what matters is that Goerne endows all but a few songs with the best his voice has to offer: a dramatic and well-rounded, voluminous voice of natural pronunciation and with excellent diction. But he can also 'do' mild and tender, though perhaps with less authority. Die Lotusblume (op. 25, no. 7) sounds terrifically urging and romantic, but it's also one of the stronger op. 25 songs he chose for the recording. Dichters Genesung seems derivative (or foreboding, rather) of both Die beiden Granadiere and Belsazar, both of which are impressive and impressively performed (though neither are favorites of mine). The five songs from op. 90 included here, too, take repeated listening to warm up to. Nachtlied (op. 96, no. 1) is potentially gorgeous, but so slow that it's difficult to concentrate and experience as one, elongated whole. Widmung (op. 25, no. 1) is one of Robert Schumann's finest melodies and lacks nothing in urgency with Goerne behind it, but I could see how a sunnier, lightflooded, and delighted (slightly slower) version might give me even more pleasure. Werner Güra (whose latest Lieder recital on Harmonia Mundi charmed me utterly) comes to mind.

The final song (very cute) is Zum Schluss (op. 25, no. 26). It closes on a conciliatory note a disc that demands repeated and concentrated hearing to appreciate. As such, it is not a good introduction to the Lied, or even Schumann songs. (Güra, again, would be an optimal choice for that.) Nor, for that matter, is it a good introduction to Goerne, even when he sings admirably. If you like Goerne and Schumann already, though—and are willing to give the disc a few spins, preferably with headphones—it should grow on the willing ears and delight.


Almost a Review of the Aviv Quartet 

(published first at ionarts)

Ionarts ran out of ears on Thursday, February 10th (mine were at the Kennedy Center for "America in the 40s"), and we did not get to cover the Aviv Quartet's concert of Shostakovich (Quartet No. 4), MacMillan, Beethoven ("Serioso"), etc., at the Library of Congress. In an odd way to make up for that lapse, I am putting up a review of that promising group's recital from the week before at the Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

As part of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Concerts at that Temple, the Aviv Quartet performed Beethoven's op. 18, No. 6, Prokoviev's second string quartet, Sir Ernest MacMillan's Two Sketches for String Quartet and, with the charming addition of pianist Einav Yarden, a student of Leon Fleisher's, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34.

The delectable Beethoven quartet is one of the more charming string quartets he has composed and well suited the audience of grateful, casual Sunday concert goers, mostly advanced in age. The execution of the work with the catchy cello line in the opening Allegro con brio was performed well enough for the occasion. There was plenty of verve and lighthearted music-making to enchant, even if the occasional phrase was muddled, less than synchronized among the members, and individual notes took some liberties.

The beautiful MacMillan work got a sensitive and delicate reading that asked for more of this seldom heard but wonderful English composer. In the Prokofiev, Sergey Ostrovsky (first violin) and Evgenia Epshtein (second violin) were able to draw on their native Russian idiomatic advantage, but Haifa native Shuli Waterman (viola) and the Canadian Rachel Mercer (cello) went right along with them and delivered a jaunty, energetic, sometimes tender interpretation well worth having sought out.

Brahms, who claimed the second half, gave the audience more of what they wanted. (Prokofiev had cleared out a few of the less hardy listeners.) The acoustic of the Temple did not enhance the work when the textures were buried and the piano could not find room between the string instruments' wall of sound in front of it. But for all the mellowness (including tempi), there were moments of true beauty: an element that is, admittedly, difficult to remove from Brahms.

The Brahms in particular was under-rehearsed and the Quartet never gave more than it needed to for such a casual affair, and the violins often did not agree with each other on intonation, but then they had just recently gotten off their respective planes. The Quartet, that has won a contract with Naxos by virtue of their playing, was said to have given a superb performance on that Thursday in the Library of Congress that made people run out to get Shostakovich string quartets on CD.

You can read the review (Aviv Quartet, Hitting Rare Notes, February 12) by Cecelia Porter for the Washington Post, in which she asks the question, "why were two trifles of Ernest MacMillan included in this demanding program?"


David Zinman Turns Water Into Wine 

(published first at ionarts)

The greatest thing ever to have happened to Baltimore's music scene—David Zinman—was in the neighborhood; only that this time he gave proof of his extraordinary ability with the rival orchestra, the NSO. I've been a long-standing admirer of Zinman's ability to make B-orchestras play like the finest ensembles anywhere, but even moreso of his dedicated, imaginative, challenging, exploring (yes, all that!) programming. He is not only a great conductor of orchestras, but also of his audiences. And then, of course, he manages to say new things about standard repertoire that we often think have been exhausted, interpretatively. (His phenomenally well-selling Beethoven and Schumann cycles are a case in point.)

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L. van Beethoven, Symphonies 1-9, David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Programming is a strength that can really only shine with a conductor in residence, and he could have been excused for a less than extraordinarily inspired program. But no: David Diamond, Music for Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet in five scenes. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, KV 491, and Elgar's Second Symphony were on the menu.

Excuse me if I gush (I don't usually), but that is quite brilliant. Of course you cannot do wrong with the Mozart concerto. Little music is more perfect and beautiful, without equal in its field save Beethoven's 4th. But bookended by Diamond's appealing, sweetly flowing R&J opus (thereby keeping with the "America in the 40s" celebration, even if the concert was not officially part of it) and Elgar's symphonic masterpiece—played not nearly often enough outside of England—the Mozart became the core of an evening that presents 20th-century American and 20th-century English music: transatlantic cleavage on musical terms. North American, Central European, and British musical tradition at its finest and in a package that should have the audience ask itself with incredulity: "Whoever said we were afraid of 20th-century music?"

David Diamond, one of the finest American composers and sadly underexposed—though that has slowly begun to change over the last 20 years—delivers a splendid work, not unduly deep (that perhaps a link with the Mozart) and its broad flows, exposed instrumental parts, and quirky wit were all masterfully played by an NSO in, once again, top form. To watch David Zinman conduct, too, is a joy. Every move is exact, precise, has purpose, shows rather than alludes, directs rather than suggests, shapes rather than evokes. That is not to call him an automaton devoid of emotion. Emotion in a limp, shapeless body goes nowhere, but feeling introduced to a tight, trim body elevates a performance from orchestral sound to a moving concert experience. There are only a handful (or less) of orchestras in the world that are in such good shape that they can take suggestions alone and provide discipline and cohesion themselves. The NSO (much less the Baltimore SO) is not one of them.

Photo of Peter Serkin
Peter Serkin
For the Mozart, Zinman got the support of Peter Serkin (Serkin, jumping in for Radu Lupu at short notice, got Zinman's support in turn), son of Rudolf Serkin and grandson of one of the best violinists of his time, Adolf Busch. Zinman, not surprisingly, took the Mozart at a brisker tempo than usually heard, and the no-nonsense, crisp way in which Peter Serkin collaborated exquisitely, worked very well... and the further into the concerto they went, the more the benefits of this approach became obvious. It had very similar qualities to the ones for which I so adore the Mozart piano concerto recordings with Dennis Russell Davies and Keith Jarrett on Nonesuch (Set 1 and Set 2).

Elgar's Symphony No. 2, undoubtedly one of the greatest symphonic works from the Perfidious Albion, swept through the concert hall in all its magnificence, brooding and yearning and with more in common with Mahler's 9th than just the year of creation. The intense tremors of the first movement's Allegro vivace e nobilimente went right into my bones. Sitting back and enjoying Zinman's visible delight in making great music—and the NSO going along every step of the way with him—was all I was left to do for the remainder of the Elgar.

The second movement (Larghetto) was a triumph, cut and dried. The climax of the third (Rondo: Presto) is like being run over by a train, only far more awesome. (Not the least because the experience is generally survived by those without coronary weakness.) Moderato e maestoso, the fourth movement, sent me back into the cool night with delight of the highest order. It took me an hour to get the delirious grin off my face. Stupendous. (With three out of five recent concerts of the NSO so well played—Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony, Copland's 3rd Symphony, and this one—quality nights out might just become the rule at the Kennedy Center, not the exception!)

To experience this work live like that catapulted it into my personal list of favorite symphonies, on par with just about anything I have heard in concert. Alas, for a concert of this extraordinary quality in every detail, the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was shamefully empty. There isn't going to be a conductor of Zinman's quality in our region, at least not on a regular basis, for at least another two years; no one ought to miss the chance to hear him. Chances to not miss it are given today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday), both at 8 pm.

See also Daniel Ginsberg, Zinman & Serkin Bring Out the Best in the NSO (Washington Post, February 18).


America; the Beautiful Noise 

Deep barking brass and threatening, thundering timpani take turns with sweetly floating moments of tenderness in the first movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony. The movement, titled “Prophecy” was the beginning to the latest installment of the Kennedy Center’s celebration of “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts” that ties in film, exhibitions and concerts.

The NSO did Bernstein and their conductor, Leonard Slatkin, proud with well honed playing that ended on wonderfully soft notes, reverberating into the gait of the second movement, “Profanation.” This second movement follows Jeremiah’s prophecy with another tone poem-like depiction of the priesthood’s mockery of the prophet, culminating into a “pagan celebration” with disguised reappearances of the earlier themes. (Not that I could have gathered all that just from listening. It is not that descriptive in musical terms… but Richard Freed’s program notes helped out.) “Lamentation”, the third and final movement, made use of Mary Philips’ velvety and appropriately penetrating mezzo but is slightly less involving. Well performed as it was, though, it managed to be chilling, beautiful and (mildly) shocking all at the same time.

Photo by Dan Porges
Lynn HarrellThe landscape of cello concertos is sparsely populated with true gems – and none the richer for Barber’s contribution. That is not to say that it isn’t a fine piece of music (which, by all means, it is), but the cello and tutti passages seem oddly unhinged, disjointed and lacking a discernable goal toward which they work. All that makes it a more thankless work than its junior sibling, the Violin Concerto. Of course, the 1947 New York Music Critic’s Circle who gave the concerto their award and Richard Freed, who calls it “superbly tailored to the character of the cello itself” seem to disagree. Still, I, too, can find passages of great beauty and cohesion sprinkled between the somewhat more tedious and long solo passages of the first movement (Allegretto Moderato).

The Andante Sostenuto continues all the good elements of the preceding movement and Lynn Harrell, who was the night’s featured soloist, churned out a clean and pleasant reading for this NSO premiere. Mr. Harrell’s tone was not very thick, nor piercing… and while I could have hoped for a bit more edge and volume in some passages, it was never less than pleasing to hear him. The third movement (Molto Allegro ed appassionato) was taken at a rather leisurely pace and brought back some of the first movement’s odd calling cards. The audience, filling no more than three quarters of the Concert Hall, seemed enchanted and sustained applause called Mr. Harrell unto the stage three times.

The second half of the program was Aaron Copland’ massive Symphony No.3 – another piece played seldom enough to be special just on the account of hearing it live. Copland created this bear of a work for Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra upon commission, and alongside a huge orchestra (the double basses and percussionists alone had manpower enough to field two football teams), he asks for fine delicacy (especially toward the end of the 1st movement) as much as brutal force. Clipped outbursts, piano and xylophone chatter, brass orgies enliven the 2nd movement. All along it showed that this program must be dear to Leonard Slatkin’s heart: The NSO was audibly well drilled, responsive and played unusually well. A special nod to the brass section – not always the source of beaming pride at the NSO – that did a marvelous job. (The only notable flaw occurred when I jotted down the preceding sentence.)

Wondrous ethereal, soft comes along the third movement, as though exhausted from the topsy-turvy scherzo. But nothing in Copland is “wondrous ethereal, soft” for too long, and after a substantial orchestral sprawl and meandering, the delicious celesta marks the entry of the quote from “Fanfare to the Common Man”, a merry noise, indeed. It also marks the shift into the fifteen-some minute, rousing ascent to the finale that was nothing short of spellbinding and spectacular.

The almost-ecstatic audience even got a Roy Anderson encore (complete with bicycle-bell or its orchestral cousin) and a little speech that took some very vocal and very vocally cheered jabs at WETA’s decision to off their classical music service and go all-news, all-the-time. The night was clearly an American marvel of the Washington concert season not to be missed. Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and Saturday, at 8.00pm.


Dip Your Ears... ( 25 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

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D. Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas, M. Pletnev
If anything can ever convince the purist that Scarlatti on the Piano is not a sin, it would be this marvel of a disc. Mikhail Pletnev, no stranger to controversy (as in his recent Schumann account), takes a delightfully fresh approach to these pieces that won me over in no time. Under Pletnev, the sonatas get an eerily modern touch, become seductive and addictive. Even Horowitz’s famous recording cannot compare this 2-CD-set, now reissued at a ridiculously low price. Music that sparkles like this is not often found – and once you stop missing the harpsichord in these works, you will find yourself listening to this performance over and over, without getting tired of it. Do not be fooled into thinking that as a baroque piece, this might make suitable background-music for a day in the office. You will not get any work done as you listen with delight. Maria Tipo, Christian Zacharias and Ivo Pogorelich (see review) all give delightful accounts - but (especially at this price) none match Pletnev. Even having listened to that disc some 400 times (conservative estimate), it is still among the top 20 of discs in my collection.

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