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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [32:39]
Piano Concerto in D major, Op. 61a (1807) [39:29]
Boris Berezovsky (piano)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra Orebro/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Orebro Concert Hall 25-26, 28-31 May, 1 June 2001. DDD
SIMAX PSC 1280 [72:08]

 

This is volume 7 of a series of Beethoven’s complete orchestral works. Volume 3 featured these performers in Piano Concertos 1 and 2, Volume 5 in Piano Concerto 3 and the Triple Concerto. The present disc is distinctive in that it couples with Piano Concerto 4 Beethoven’s transcription for piano of his Violin Concerto. This was made at the request of Clementi, a fellow composer and pianist as well as a publisher. Three questions arise. 1. How different is this transcription from the original? 2. What difference does the change of solo instrument make? 3. Does it work? Read on … 

First, Piano Concerto 4. Recently I reviewed Rudolf Buchbinder’s recording (see review). This may suitably be compared to Berezovsky’s as Buchbinder also uses a chamber orchestra. From the opening solo there’s more spring here. The orchestral introduction takes up this spring and is lighter, subtler, the thinking as it were more in paragraphs than sentences. Yet texture and presentation of themes are extremely clear. This suggests to have a sympathetic conductor, like Dausgaard, is better than Buchbinder’s going it alone.

Berezovsky achieves more tonal and rhythmic contrast, probably easier in a studio than concert situation yet managed without any apparent loss of immediacy. So, for example, there’s more playfulness to the repeat of the second theme (tr. 1 4:33). The orchestra shows more character and humour in its delivery of the themes. There’s more variation in the piano solo. The beginning of the development (from 7:12) has more of a toying, musing quality about it. Later there’s a magical further softening of already pianissimo focus (8:54) as the sequence moves a notch, then a gossamer delicacy about the pianissimo playing after the return of the first theme (from 9:56).  

But I wasn’t ever conscious of virtuosity, as in Buchbinder’s bravura display. From Berezovsky there’s an engaging identification with and expression of the music which is highly varied and inventive; perhaps overmuch for some tastes, but masterly. Berezovsky, like Buchbinder, plays Beethoven’s longer cadenza, but with more flair in contrasting its deliberate and volatile aspects and a softer rhythmic insistency. It begins fiery and becomes more internalized, then revealing greater variety of mood and colour.

Both recordings finely realize the slow movement’s contrasting worlds. Dausgaard’s orchestral contribution is crisper and more peremptory, if not as blustering and gruff as Buchbinder’s. Berezovsky’s piano counters by a stately, impassive calm, the closing cantilena naturally evolving, its jagged elements still a surprise, showing the conflict before the calm.

Berezovsky’s treatment of the rondo finale is more playful, festive and mercurial than Buchbinder’s physicality. Dausgaard’s orchestral comments have a sprightly robustness and even a sense of audacity about them, so you notice for example the cut and thrust (tr. 3 4:15) between the three appearances of the rising two chords in the piano’s left hand and the pizzicato strings’ feathery falling two chords. The second (that is episode) theme is always treated gently by both, making an especially satisfying contrast of velvety delicacy in the cadenza (7:48) after Berezovsky has first mirrored the orchestra’s vigour.

This Simax recording balances the piano prominently but naturally for collaboration with the orchestra, so it emerges in relation to the orchestral focus rather than, as Buchbinder’s piano, dominating it by forward placing.        

To turn now to the Piano Concerto in D major, Op.61a. There’s a difference from the Violin Concerto origin right from the opening. It’s still gentle and smiling in this performance but there’s also an eager rhythmic insistency, especially that four note motto on the timpani. With good reason. The transcription differs in its extra features. I’d estimate about 90 per cent of the notes played by the violin are present and the orchestration is unchanged. But while there are no Violin Concerto cadenzas by Beethoven, for the piano transcription he provides four. The most striking is the expansive roller-coaster one in the first movement (tr. 4 15:22 to 19:56). After a robust version of the first theme there’s a much freer section which Berezovsky conveys as an energized whirling giddiness. Then the drums join in. Do you find anywhere before this, or in Beethoven, a cadenza with timpani accompaniment? Piano and timpani create a triumphant march. Both have hot solo passages, the piano’s more extended, like a fantasia on the four note motto. After this the coda with orchestra is especially calm and chastened.

In the mean-time the second theme (1:17) has been an assured parade, with the piano later calmly floating around its orchestral presentation with lovely upper register touch from Berezovsky, phrases tailing off and the more clouded material poetically realized. The orchestral version of the timpani motto has bite without undue beefiness.

The piano part is subtly varied from the violin at times, as suitable to its different strengths. For instance from 5:28 to 5:36 the left hand doubles the cellos and basses line, from 9:04 the bassoon. At 6:20 and 6:23 there are flourishes added where the violin just has trills. At 12:02 the piano has trills where the violin has sustained notes. The piano melody isn’t always maintained in the same register as the violin, for example for the progress of the new theme (9:49) in the development. The overall effect is to create a solo part of greater fluidity.

The slow movement finds Berezovsky and Dausgaard gently insistent, their phrasing as tender as the melodic line. The main theme is a melting clarinet then warm bassoon solo with piano extemporizing around. However, the piano gets to present the theme in the middle section (tr. 5 4:23) where Berezovsky is movingly controlled yet flowing. From 5:13 there’s an ingenious addition to the original violin material: an Alberti bass style backing, but very much in the upper range of the left hand.

The cadenza in this movement (from 8:16) is a stormy version and expansion of the opening theme, followed by a speculative exploration which gradually transforms into the third movement rondo. This procedure of creating a finale theme by degrees from the slow movement is familiar in the Emperor piano concerto, but here the cadenza is the starting line.

The piano begins the rondo finale impishly while the orchestra’s repeat of the theme relishes its syncopations. It’s a joy about this performance that, whether presenting or accompanying, Dausgaard always finds the right weight, deftly marking without overdoing the crescendos. This is rhythmic weight rather than ghetto blasting sonority. At the second appearance of the theme the piano adds decorations to the repeated phrases (e.g. tr. 6 0:18, 0:23), adding to the lightheartedness.  Yet the second episode (from 3:18) is creamily mysterious, with a lovely lightness of touch from Berezovsky and a superb, beaming bassoon. There’s a brief cadenza at the pause early in the finale (from 2:06). The closing cadenza (from 6:43) has a barnstorming start and fireworks galore.       

So how does this compare with the original Violin Concerto? I listened to the even more historically informed, period instrument 1997 account by Thomas Zehetmair with the Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen (Philips 4621232). Brüggen’s orchestra has a similar bite to Dausgaard’s but rather more crafted beauty of contrast. His first movement second theme has more bounce and urgency and the later loud orchestral responses are more blazing. I prefer Dausgaard’s quieter resilience.

The violin’s role as soloist is sweeter and more sustained than the piano, but the contrast of piano against strings when Berezovsky takes up the second theme, especially its recapitulation (tr. 4 12:49) is greater and for me more pleasing than that of violin against other strings. There’s a sense of intelligent discourse about the whole Zehetmair interpretation yet his violin is a little more dominant in relation to the orchestra than Berezovsky’s piano.

Unusually Zehetmair plays cadenzas by Wolfgang Schneiderhan which appear to be violin transcriptions of Beethoven’s cadenzas for piano, even including the timpani accompaniment. Zehetmair plays these with great bravura but they are not quite idiomatic, largely because the violinist can’t get around the notes so quickly, therefore the quicksilver runs don’t have the piano’s vertiginous continuity.

In the slow movement Bruggen doesn’t achieve as restful an opening as Dausgaard but the violin solos are more ethereal than the piano. Zehetmair’s cadenza is rather histrionic, lacking the coaxing transition to the finale which Berezovsky achieves. The finale’s rondo theme is at first more reflectively treated by Zehetmair, but Brüggen’s orchestra is more heavyweight and romantic than Dausgaard’s classical yet sunny restraint.

In the final analysis I’d say the violin for which the work was originally conceived engages the attention on a more personal level, but the piano brings a more clinical slant on the work, with more of a sense of observation than experience. The fascination lies in becoming aware, through comparison, of Beethoven’s creative processes in making this adaptation, particularly in the cadenzas. The commission unlocked for Beethoven potential in the work and allowed him to realize it. This recording allows us to hear it convincingly. It does work. It’s not preferable to the original violin version but it is a viable alternative. Part of the reason why, however, is because Beethoven concerto playing today doesn’t get any better than this.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 

 


 



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