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 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 this disc of No 3,
featured the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
In fact Eloquence proudly proclaim these other discs (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 complete series is gathered together as follows.
Nos 1 and 4 share one (well-filled) disc: 466 707-2. The rest are
coupled with a variety of other Beethoven orchestral or piano music.
No 2 includes (very generously) an almost complete Prometheus,
on 466 681-2. This disc of No 3 (fittingly, but far from generously)
is topped up with the 32 Variations on an Original Theme. No 5,
the so-called ‘Emperor’, is followed by 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 Eloquence (Philips)
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.
The Third Concerto is quintessential Beethoven, recalling
as it does Mozart’s Piano Concerto (K491) in the same key, of which
Beethoven famously declared "we shall never be able to do anything
like that!" The two pieces share the same anxiety and intensity,
even though the younger composer was yet to experience the desolation
we hear so uncomfortably in K491. Beethoven is his own man, though,
and time and time again breaks away from convention. How telling the
pianissimo timpani are as the soloist winds up his cadenza in the first
movement – and how atmospheric it is in this recording, with the hard
drumsticks distinct but distant behind that blanket of strings. How
daringly Beethoven explores the remote key of E major for his hymn-like
slow movement – and how sonorous it is in Lupu’s hands! And how cleverly
Beethoven plunges back into a restless C minor for the finale –
G sharp, remember, is the same black note as A flat – and how quickly
Lupu’s Third was, as I’ve already said, his first**
Beethoven Concerto recording – made in London, and (the LSO being a
notch or two above the Israel Philharmonic as an ensemble) perhaps the
better for it! Even so, a high degree of polish is no substitute for
real characterisation: at the end of the day, it is the slightly anonymous
orchestral contribution which limits the effectiveness of these performances.
Regrettably, the same is true of Mehta (in varying degrees) in the other
issues in this series.
The 32 (very short) Variations on a (not very) Original
Theme – also in C minor – are written (or rather they’re best regarded
as having been written) in one long paragraph. Lupu plays them with
fire and colour, and (most importantly) ploughs through all the double
bars with far-sighted determination. The approach works well.
The CD booklet declares the running time to be 49'
23": they probably hoped you wouldn’t notice! In fact, there are only
a miserly 47' 20" here: even Mozart’s biggest Concerto – the one without
which Beethoven’s Third may never have seen the light of day – could
have been accommodated here, instead of the Variations. What are they
thinking about, offering us such small portions?
Peter J Lawson
Correction sent in by Cyrus Meher-Homji,
The third was not part of the IPO/Mehta cycle. It was, I'm pretty sure,
his first Decca recording (1971), with Lawrence Foster.