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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concertos: 1 in C op.15, 2 in B flat op.19, 3 in c op.37, 4 in G op.58, 5 in E flat op.73
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live in the Stefaniensaal, Graz (1, 3-5) and the Musikverein, Vienna (2), 23rd-26th June 2001 (1), 21st-23rd September 2001 (2), 28th-30th June 2000 (3), 26th-28th June 2002 (4), 21st-24th June 2002 (5)
TELDEC CLASSICS 09274 7334-2 [3 CDs: 70:24, 37:50, 75:09]


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A typically uncompromising Harnoncourt package with no. 2 placed first (it was written before no. 1), no concession to crass economics in the form of a filler to the short second disc (though this team would surely have raised sparks with the Choral Fantasia), and no mention on either the cover or in the booklet that some of us poor vulgar souls have been calling no. 5 the "Emperor" ever since Beethovenís contemporaries gave it that nickname.

My feelings about this set evolved in the course of listening to it and Iíd better say, in case my opening salvo suggests this is going to be a carping review, that this is a series of performances which forces us to reassess our attitudes to Beethoven style, and that can be only to the good.

No. 2 begins with a brusque, furrow-browed opening gesture, answered with all the gentle sweetness of a Mozart serenade. Each moment of this exposition thereafter receives maximum characterisation, and each moment is allowed to have its own particular tempo, rather than be slotted into a single tempo which is held throughout. The adjustments of tempo back and forth are a little disconcerting. Then Aimard enters at a different tempo again and he allows himself as much if not more freedom as Harnoncourt. However, it sounds more natural, or normal, and this poses our first question. Pianists tend to allow themselves the luxury of a flexible pulse because there is only one of them (or, in the case of a concerto, the conductor is expected to follow as best he can) and they can work out their pulse variations in the course of long hours spent practising at home. Orchestras and chamber groups generally settle for a constant tempo, or at least only a few pre-ordained changes, firstly because not all conductors are up to controlling such pulse-flexibility (not a problem for Harnoncourt, clearly), or are allotted enough rehearsal time in which to obtain it (also this was not a problem in the present case, I imagine). Therefore we are not surprised at Aimardís tempo variations whereas those of Harnoncourt take some getting used to. It is sometimes suggested that solo pianists should learn from their chamber and orchestral brethren the virtues of a steady tempo; it has less often been suggested that orchestras and conductors might learn to play around with rhythms and tempi as solo pianists are wont to do. Indeed, precious few conductors since the days of Mengelberg have attempted this, and the received wisdom, at least until recently, was that it was a thoroughly bad practice. If Harnoncourt causes us to reassess this received wisdom, this can do no harm. Sample the opening of no. 3, with every phrase separated by elongated rests, so that the music gets under way only gradually; Beethovenís score has been virtually stripped down and reinvented.

Aimard is a pianist more associated with contemporary repertoire. In Beethoven he is unfailingly fluent and well-phrased with a light-filled touch that most resembles, among famous Beethoven pianists of the past, that of Wilhelm Kempff. There is never a hard or a crude sound to be heard, his piano always sings and the interplay between the hands is exemplary. He is capable of both withdrawn poetry and divine rampage; as with Harnoncourt, controversy is likely to centre around the range of speeds which he allows to accommodate these extremes.

Harnoncourtís pioneer work in the original instruments field shows in the short, stabbing accents of the more rhythmic themes (try the opening of no. 3), or in his tendency to apply a diminuendo to a chord which is more often held at a constant volume (hear the second bar of no. 1). He can be brutal, as in the passage before the pianoís first entry in no. 3. But he can also be exquisitely tender, encouraging highly poetic phrasing from his wind soloists. His insistence on non-vibrato playing from the strings results, not in coldness but in an organ-like richness. The slow movement of no. 5 offers a sustained example, but others abound all through.

In general, it can be said that in the first three concertos Aimard and Harnoncourt give us bristling, furrow-browed Beethoven where the rhythmic profile of the music demands it, but instead of maintaining their drive they relax into post-Mozartian poetry whenever they get the chance. The result is that Beethoven seems rather less purposeful than we usually think him to be, and at times I felt I was listening to some such amiable proto-romantic as Hummel or even John Field. While shedding light on many incidental passages, perhaps the overall vision has been reduced, even domesticated.

No. 4 is a special case. The pianistís dreamy opening is taken at face value by Harnoncourt (I rather expected the tempo to be whipped up at the first forte passage) and their poetic, evanescent way suggests that they have decided to try playing the work in the style of Scriabin or Delius, just to see what happens. And yet, how wonderfully transparent it all is, the answering phrases between violins and cellos really clear for once and the piano totally integrated into the texture. I shall never hear this work again in quite the same way.

No. 5 gets a spacious, romantic conception, with the outer movements systematically fielding two tempi, one for the louder passages and a slower one for the gentler moments. The result seems more the work of a contemporary of Schumann than of Beethoven. Thus concertos 1-3 and 5 make a logical progression, from proto-romanticism to full romanticism, with no. 4 standing apart as a visionary, sublime statement.

The received wisdom of Beethoven interpretation was laid down in the 1930s by Weingartner for the symphonies and Schnabel for the sonatas and concertos. The Gospel according to Weingartner and Schnabel taught that each movement should be driven through at a constant tempo; as interpreted by many of their successors this led to a rigidly inflexible pulse. But it was not ever thus. Weingartner and Schnabel arrived at the dawn of tolerable recorded sound, but Beethoven performances from such pianists as Eugen DíAlbert or Frederick Lamond suggest a quite different attitude to pulse, not unlike that of Aimard and Harnoncourt. A full-scale investigation into pre-Schnabel Beethoven on record has not been made, so far as I am aware, yet some of the earliest artists to record Beethoven were not so far distant in time from the likes of Czerny and Moscheles who had it from the horseís mouth. So it is just faintly possible that Aimard and Harnoncourt are recovering a flexibility which should never have been lost. The sheer fact that they provoke such thoughts is surely to be judged positively.

So what sort of recommendation can I give to this finely engineered set? If you are buying your first Beethoven, I suppose this might be a risky choice, though better that than some routine professional job. If you think you know these works well and are prepared to reassess your reactions to them and to what constitutes a Beethoven style, then you can look forward to many hours of illumination. My own responses to the concertos have definitely been enriched. I wonder, though, if these are performances were not better heard live, since they often depend on sheer unexpectedness for their effect. Iíll report again in ten yearsí time!

Christopher Howell

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