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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Five Piano Concertos

No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [39.14]
No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1798) [31.10]
No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (c. 1800) [37.50]
No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [35.27]
No. 5 in E flat major (Emperor), Op. 73 (1809) [39.42]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded (Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5) in the Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria June 2001 (No. 1), June 2000 (No. 3), June 2002 (Nos. 4 and 5) and the Musikverein, Vienna, November 2001 (No. 2)
WARNER CLASSICS 0927 47334-2 [3CDs: 183.24]


For more than 50 years few classical record collections will not have included some, if not all, of the Beethoven symphonies and concertos, and by now most collectors will have their own firm favourites. Today, however, an increasing number of recordings provide opportunities for a re-assessment of both familiar and unfamiliar works. This ‘historically informed’ approach is not, as some may imagine, an exercise in antique restoration but a genuine attempt to see these works in the light of current musicological research, textual analysis and Beethoven’s own dynamic markings. For the listener the real point of all this is what the music actually sounds like. Following the enthusiastic reception given to Harnoncourt’s recently released Beethoven symphonies his interpretations of the piano concertos have been eagerly awaited, and our patience has been amply rewarded.

From the opening bars of No. 2 (the first concerto to be published in a version much of which is now lost and later extensively revised by Beethoven) it is clear that we are in for surprises, but no shocks. Similarities with Mozart, particularly in concertos 1 and 2, have occasionally been noted, but the Beethoven concertos span almost the whole of his creative life and, as usual, he was doing things in his own way and in his own time. Overall tempi are not noticeably brisk indeed often slower than I anticipated though the orchestral texture is more transparent than in the opulent approach favoured by large, glossy orchestras and star conductors, from Beecham to von Karajan. The first impression is the amount of fine detail revealed; the next, and most impressive, is the rapport between Harnoncourt and Aimard, whose crystal clarity and expressive brilliance is unfaltering throughout. The piano plays with the orchestra, not against it as sometimes happens, and this collaboration allows for greater rhythmic flexibility and integration. Entries are judged with hairbreadth precision, articulation is exact and convincing and there is no ‘leading’ or lack of nuance. Beethoven’s orchestra was, by today’s standards, small, and contained instruments materially different in sound and volume from those likely to be found in a modern symphony orchestra. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays, as its name implies, with intimacy, but no lack of gusto. The dialogue between piano and orchestra falls naturally and gracefully into an integrated, satisfying whole that preserves the line of the performance and creates an enchanting sound world that is distinctively Beethoven’s.

The third and fourth concertos use a musical language that encompasses the composer’s developing imagination and sensitivity to the delicate balance between orchestra and piano. For example, the slow movement of No. 3 is taken at a pace that gives it the time and space needed for its meditative calm to unfold, and the slowish opening of No. 4 blossoms like a flower, with Aimard and the orchestra spinning a magical spell that preserves its gentle character leading to the vigorous arrival of the first subject.

It is in No. 5 that we find one of the most finely wrought and beautifully realised performances on these discs. Its dramatic opening - usually treated as a flourish to allow pianists to establish their virtuoso credentials is treated less as a fanfare and more as an important part of the whole movement. Thus through all three movements colour, excitement, high spirits and mature reflection, arrive with a sense of inevitability at the brilliant, technically daunting finale, effortlessly captured by orchestra and soloist. The concerto is cyclic in form a ‘symphonic concerto’ in which subtle thematic interplay is vital and, once again in this interpretation we come close to its noble heart.

Whether or not you already possess recordings of the piano concertos this set will be a revelation of how far we have moved towards a synthesis between what we expect from the music and what can still be revealed by dedicated musicians. Every performance of a work is, in a literal sense, ‘new’, and I will continue to treasure outstanding, though radically different, versions of the concertos, such as the 1968 album from EMI with Barenboim and Klemperer. Such readings are not rendered invalid, much less obsolete, but it is impossible not to feel that, on this occasion, we have come appreciably closer to understanding how Beethoven wanted them played.

In the accompanying booklet Aimard writes ‘Never would I have imagined that I would one day be recording these concertos’. We must be grateful that the time has arrived for him to do so with such manifest success. The booklet also contains an informative essay by Wolfgang Sandberger.

Roy Brewer

see also review by Christopher Howell


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