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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op 15 (1795) [33.13]
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 (1808) [33.47]
Radu Lupu (piano) & Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Zubin Mehta
DDD: recorded 1980 (No 1)
ADD: recorded 1978 (No 4)
ELOQUENCE DECCA 466 707-2 [67.00]
Superbudget


This disc is one of four releases on the budget-priced Eloquence label containing Radu Lupu’s 1970s recordings of all five Beethoven Piano Concertos. Lupu’s performances were widely acclaimed (though not at the top of anyone’s tree, so far as I can recall) when they first appeared, and it is good to see them back in circulation. They were taped variously between 1971 (No 3) and 1980 (No 1, the only digital recording in the set) and, with the exception of No 3 (in which Lawrence Foster conducts the London Symphony Orchestra), featured the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta. In fact Decca proudly proclaim these (with their prominent photo-logo of Mehta) to be part of their ‘Zubin Mehta Edition’, thereby attributing (by implication) the lion’s share of the honours to the conductor rather than the soloist!

The disc we are considering here is the only one in the series to couple two Concertos: the remainder offer us a variety of other Beethoven orchestral or piano music by way of fill-ups. No 2 includes (very generously) an almost complete Prometheus, on 466 681-2. No 3 (fittingly, but far from generously) is followed by the 32 Variations on an Original Theme, on 466 690-2. No 5, the so-called ‘Emperor’, is topped up with a short (but agreeably self-contained) recital comprising the two Op 51 Rondos, and the two two-movement Sonatas of Op 49: 466 689-2.

The two missing pieces from this list are the so-called ‘Triple Concerto’ (Op 56 in C major, for piano, violin, cello and orchestra) and the ‘Choral Fantasy’ (Op 80 in C minor, for piano, chorus and orchestra). So far as I am aware, Lupu has not recorded these, but readers wishing to complete their collection may wish to note that (very usefully) they can be found together on the (Philips) Eloquence label – the number is 464 368-2. Arrau is the pianist in the former, with Szeryng and Starker, and conducted by Inbal: the latter comes from the complete Brendel-Haitink set.

Throughout these recordings, it is obvious that Lupu identifies with what Beethoven is saying: he always allows us to hear the composer’s voice loud and clear, as only the greatest recreative artists do. The vitality, the tranquillity; the magic, the surprises; the anger, the rejoicing – it’s all there. Listen to the solemnity of No 1’s slow movement, or the jollity of its finale – the full range of Beethoven’s writing comes across, without exaggeration, and with none of the irritating idiosyncrasies which ‘big’ personalities of the keyboard so often inflict upon us.

The Fourth Concerto is surely the greatest (certainly the most innovative) of these pieces. This is the piece in which the piano dares to speak before the orchestra – lovely phrasing from Lupu here, though the voicing is not absolutely perfect – only to be answered by the orchestra in the remote key of B major (Mehta suitably hushed, if a little impatient to move on) as if in an adjacent building. I’ve always loved the way the first movement’s second theme ambles through every imaginable key, creating a sense of poetic journeying and questioning: something both artists draw out keenly here, despite some imperfect orchestral discipline. And what a slow movement! This confrontation between aggressive orchestra (unison, dotted, forte…) and imperturbable piano (harmony, legato, pianissimo…) resolves itself through the soloist’s patient pleading: a romantic drama which is years ahead of its time, and perfectly captured here! As for Beethoven’s slipping tip-toe into the finale – unnoticed, by virtue of starting in the wrong key! – Mehta’s stage whispering is very nearly spoilt by imprecise ensemble.

You’ll find wider-ranging performances (certainly better drilled performances) in the catalogue, but there are times when cautious artists (those who are determined at all costs NOT to superimpose their personalities on the music) are to be preferred to those whose mountains are always high and whose valleys are always deep. That’s how it is here: these are performances one can live with – warts and all.

Peter J Lawson

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