> Beethoven - Triple Concerto - Choral Fantasy [PJL]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto in C major for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, Op 56 (1808) [37.23]
Claudio Arrau (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), János Starker (cello) & New Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Eliahu Inbal
ADD: recorded 1971
Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op 80 (1808) [20.45]
Alfred Brendel (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, cond. Bernard Haitink
ADD: recorded 1977
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 464 368-2 [58.08]



What have these two pieces in common? Both were written in 1808. Both suffer – rightly or wrongly – from being pigeon-holed as Division 2 Beethoven or neglected masterpieces, depending on your point of view. Both are Piano Concertos which aren’t quite Piano Concertos, involving as they do a solo violin and cello (in the case of the so-called ‘Triple Concerto’) or a chorus (and for a mere two minutes only, in the piece we usually refer to as the ‘Choral Fantasy’). So neither piece fits easily or comfortably (certainly not cheaply!) into a concert programme: and they’ve probably been overlooked by concert planners and promoters for precisely that reason.

In truth, they’re both (in their different ways) remarkable pieces. Take the Triple Concerto. The discreet statement of the theme in the cellos and basses which opens the first movement is extraordinary (both as scoring and as thinking) for its time, and the tutti which ensues is as exciting as anything in middle-period Beethoven. And of all the transitory middle movements which typify so much Beethoven at this time (think of the Fifth or Sixth Symphonies, the Rasumovsky Quartets, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Waldstein and Appassionata Piano Sonatas…) this is as beautiful, as mysterious and as intense as any. But there are times in the first movement – and longer periods in the rondo finale – where Beethoven loses his way and falls back on rather empty convention.

It’s interesting that no one refers to Op 56 as a ‘Piano Trio’ Concerto; and, in truth, it is no such thing. It really is a concerto for three soloists who, although they need to work together as a team, as often as not take turns to enjoy the limelight. This doesn’t suit every front-rank soloist, of course. And it doesn’t benefit the structural integrity of the concerto either, what with so much of the material being repeated for the different solo instruments: the result is that our interest can be divided rather than multiplied.

The Three Wise Men in this recording include Arrau – an over-rated artist, I’ve always thought: will the editor sack me for saying such a thing, I wonder? He plays well – solidly rather than subtly. Szeryng is his usual excellent self, with secure intonation and forthright articulation in the finale. Starker plays the slow movement main theme (high up on his A-string) with glorious tone and the breathings in and out you’d expect from a great singer, but his tone lower down the instrument is less refined. Inbal accompanies loyally. The sum of all this? A well-played performance which lets you hear what Beethoven wrote, but doesn’t go all out to ‘sell’ the piece: there are better characterised performances available in the catalogue, even at bargain price. Tape hiss intrudes too.

The Choral Fantasy, I would argue, is definitely NOT second-rate Beethoven: it deserves a wider hearing. It contains one of Beethoven’s truly great and memorable themes, a prototype for the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony. Indeed the whole work seems like a dry run for later things. The closing pages sound like a sketch for the closing scene of Fidelio; real Beethovenian ‘victory’ music. And the element of improvisation and fantasy – embracing all manner of theme-variation, recitative and counterpoint – are a foretaste of the Third Period (the late Piano Sonatas and String Quartets) if ever there was one.

Both Brendel and Haitink are on magnificent form here. Assertive and spontaneous, Beethoven would have been proud of them! And the recording sounds splendid.

This disc affords a good opportunity to hear two fascinating and rewarding pieces which can only deepen our understanding of this always-complex and innovatory composer.

Peter J Lawson

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