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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73 ("Emperor") [42:09]
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony No. 8 in b minor D. 759 ("Unfinished") [23:51]
Oksoo Han, piano
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Recorded in Moscow, May 2003 DDD
BEL AIR MUSIC BAM 2032 [66:35]



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Beethoven completed his so-called Emperor concerto in 1809, the year that Napoleon and his armies overtook and occupied Vienna. During the attacks the composer hid in the cellar with pillows tied to his head in an effort to shield what remained of his hearing from the blasts of the rifles and cannons. Certainly no admirer of Napoleon, the nickname was not the composer’s, rather it was applied later by the German piano maker and composer Cramer when he remarked that the magnificent work was "surely the emperor of concertos." By the time of its debut performance in 1811, Beethoven himself was unable to perform any longer. It is interesting to note that this concerto marks the first time in which the composer wrote out the solo part in its entirety before publication. The important task of soloist was given to Friederich Schneider, who performed with the Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig.

At the risk of sounding unkind, I have no choice but to say that never in my thirty years of listening to, performing and critiquing music, have I heard a less impressive performance of a major masterpiece. There is simply nothing to praise here. Passagework is disjointed and blurred with notes dropped on the floor like leaves from the autumn trees. Oksoo Han has no sense of tempo and rhythm whatever, and thankfully, when she bogs the music down to a grinding halt, conductor Dmitry Yablonsky saves her by picking things up again in the orchestra. To be fair, she does pull the second movement off with at least the right notes, but then again, any twelve-year-old could play the second movement. Once we get to the rondo, things go straightaway into the tank with wrong notes, sloppy scales, out of tempo arpeggios and a halting, hesitant style with enough emergency maestosi to sink a ship. Add to this a completely negative sense of tone, line and musicianship; I am left wondering what she learned from her impressive pedagogy. But then again, anyone with enough money can rent Carnegie Hall. I know nothing about Bel Air Music as a record label, but if they are trying to stay afloat in the industry, this is not the way to do it. There is simply nothing here to recommend.

Thankfully, Schubert’s "Unfinished" symphony fares considerably better at the hand of Dmitry Yablonsky and his orchestra. Despite its incompleteness and as such its ending in the "wrong key" of E, this is a work that has been a staple since its 1865 debut. The listener is not left unfulfilled by this work as Schubert poured into it some of his most sublime melodic invention. It receives a very fine performance indeed and is the redeeming virtue of this disc. The Moscow Philharmonic plays with a lilt and airiness that is somewhat atypical of the Russian orchestras that I have heard. Their playing is devoid of the often overbearing, excessively vibrato-laden brass sections, and everything here is played with a simple elegance. Kudos to the winds for their lovely solo work in the first movement.

What a shame then that this fine symphonic recording is so badly damaged by a truly inferior soloist. Had we had some better piano playing, this could be a real winner as this is a fine orchestra and the conductor has many solid musical and expressive ideas. His approach to the works is fresh and alive and as such we never get the impression that he or his musicians are tired of these well-trodden works.

Unless this disc is budget priced, it is certainly not worth the outlay of cash, but if it is cheap, I can recommend it for the symphony alone.

Kevin Sutton



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