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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, op. 37, Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58
András Schiff (piano), Staatskapelle Dresden/Bernard Haitink
Recorded March 1996 (no. 4) and November 1996 (no. 3) at the Lukaskirche, Dresden
ELATUS 2564-60433-2 [71:15]

These are at the opposite pole from the sometimes wilful performances I heard from Aimard and Harnoncourt recently. In the first pages of the 3rd Concerto one is struck by the precision with which dynamics are observed; accents are exactly where they are written, fortissimos come where Beethoven put them and are definitely more than single fortes. And all this is brought off with a most musical sound; accents make their point without any jabbing. Above all, though, one is struck by the evenness of pulse which allows the music to proceed inevitably, seemingly of its own accord. If Harnoncourt/Aimard harked back to the pre-Schnabel days when each musical idea went at its own tempo, Haitink has no truck with that.

Given such a majestic framework Schiff need hardly do more than slot himself in, and really his clean, well-prepared but not especially tonally beautiful playing amounts to no more than that. It works because it is such an integrated conception – the cadenza follows so evenly from the preceding tutti that one wonders if the Maestro is conducting it – although in matters of detail Schiff is less precise than Haitink. Accents and dynamics come more or less but not exactly where Beethoven put them. This is common enough and would pass unnoticed with a less precise accompaniment.

In the Largo it is Schiff who starts things off, and it is not quite certain what his tempo is, but why worry, Mr. Haitink will sort that out when he comes in, and he does. The finale is played in a similar manner to the first movement, but perhaps it should not be and I found it a little joyless. Still, this is a performance of great integrity with an especially fine first movement.

The same virtues are not enough for the 4th Concerto. One does not necessarily wish it to be treated as Scriabin or Delius, as Aimard/Harnoncourt did, but at least they found the magic in it. The plainness with which Haitink treats the prevailing four-note motive in the first movement becomes irritating in the long run, and the lack of tonal beauty on the part of the soloist (at least as recorded) is more serious in this work. At the end I reminded myself of Curzon’s magical touch here, undimmed by the elderly recording. In the slow movement, when the orchestra begins to play piano, they do it with schoolmasterly correctness rather than as if calmed and transfixed by the beauty of the piano playing. Schiff’s enunciation of the Rondo theme is lumpy – hear Curzon’s natural spontaneity at this point.

I must say my expectations of this were much higher. As it is I can only recommend it if you have a fine 4th already but need a good 3rd.

Christopher Howell

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