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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Concertos

Piano Concerto No.1, Op.15 in C major
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.19 in B flat major
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.37 in C minor
Piano Concerto No.4, Op.58 in G major
Piano Concerto No.5, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ in E flat major (1810)
Gerard Willems (piano)
Sinfonia Australis/Antony Walker
Recorded at the Eugene Goossens Hall of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia, 26-27 October 2002, 2-3 November 2002, 27-29 March 2003, 3-5 April 2003, 26-27 July 2003.
ABC CLASSICS 980 046-5 [3CDs: 68:30+70:20+39:48]

Following on from his recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for ABC Classics in 1999 Gerard Willems has turned his attention to those great masterpieces of classical music literature, the five Beethoven piano concertos.

Willems plays a hand-crafted piano made by Stuart & Sons of Australia which is constructed from modern materials such as zirconia, ceramics, stainless steel and local timbers. The piano, which has eight octaves and four pedals, looks and sounds at times like a fortepiano. In fact the soloist has described the Stuart piano, as having a clarity and sound not unlike a fortepiano and combining, "the clarity, refinement and tonal range that these concertos demand, from the mellifluous to the monumental, from classical restraint to Romantic fervour. Above all it possesses the right sound to blend perfectly with the orchestra." Some listeners may not like this often fortepiano-like timbre which is certainly different from the modern concert grand usually used in these works.

Composed in 1798 the Piano concerto No.1, Op.15 in C major was introduced in Prague with Beethoven as the soloist. Willems’ playing is excellent throughout and is exquisite and most expressive in the concluding Rondo.

The Piano concerto No.2, Op.19 in B flat major from 1795 was actually the first of the concertos to be composed and was premiered in Vienna with the composer as the soloist. Willems plays with the utmost sincerity and conviction and is especially fine in the anguished and heartfelt Adagio.

Beethoven completed his Piano concerto No.3, Op.37 in C minor in 1800 performing as soloist at its premiere in Wien. I was impressed with the bright and vigorous interpretation particularly in the first movement Allegro con brio.

Premiered in Leipzig in 1807 with the composer as soloist, the Piano concerto No.4, Op.58 in G major is a marvellous work of lofty concepts and gallant utterances. It is regarded by many commentators as the finest of all the five concertos. The tenderness and gentle serenity of Willems’ playing in the Andante con moto is outstanding.

There is no evidence that Beethoven ever performed his Piano concerto No.5, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ in E flat major, which he composed in 1809. It was premiered in Leipzig by Friedrich Schneider in 1811. I just love the way Willems plays with such masterly inspiration and control in the final movement Allegro to bring the concerto and the set to a triumphant and satisfying conclusion.

The exceptionally crowded market for versions of these Beethoven masterworks is packed with worthy contenders. My first choice would be the set of the complete concertos from Alfred Brendel with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle on Philips 462 781-2. A close second choice would be the interpretations from Stephen Kovacevich with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis on Philips 442 577-2 (concertos 1-4) and Philips 422 482-2 (concerto 5). These compelling sets are justly popular first choices for many and listeners will discover expansive musical worlds and pianist brilliance in interpretations that are awe-inspiring. A recently released live set from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Teldec Classics 09274 7334-2 has received some first-rate notices and is certainly well worth checking out.

The compelling, sincere and satisfying interpretations from Dutch-born Gerard Willems are certainly very different from those of Brendel and Kovacevich. There is little sense of spontaneity, more accuracy than intensity. These performances are controlled and stylish rather than electrifying and awe-inspiring. Therefore anyone looking for super-charged performances of white-hot intensity, filled with thrills and spills and improvisatory daring should look elsewhere. Personally I would have preferred a softer-toned, richer sounding instrument that would have conveyed more colour but the Stuart piano still sounds pretty good and is well suited to these works.

The Sydney-based chamber orchestra Sinfonia Australis is under the baton of Australian conductor Antony Walker. They prove themselves to be a most excellent orchestra with really fine playing which is fresh and clean and with a crisp attack. The Sinfonia Australis use copies of period instruments in the brass and timpani sections and offer period-informed interpretations. Occasionally the interpretation is not to my taste such as in the playing at the start of the final movement Rondo, Allegro which seems laboured but eventually settles down. Particularly noteworthy is the opening movement Allegro con brio of the Concerto No.3, Op.37 in C minor as a really fine example of their high quality orchestral playing. Recorded at the Eugene Goossens Hall in Sydney, the sound quality is vivid, immediate and full of presence.

This set was a pleasure from start to finish. The quality of the competition in this repertoire is exceptionally fierce with Willems battling against the cream of interpreters. His endearing playing is compelling and satisfying and of a consistently high calibre. Well worth hearing and Beethoven fans will be in their element.

Michael Cookson

The following information has been received

I read with interest the review of the Complete Piano Concertos, Gerard Willems piano, Sinfonia Australis/Antony Walker, ABC Classics 980 046-5 by Michael Cookson.
It must be difficult for reviewers to make objective comments on the sound produced by musical instruments within the context of a performance. Good ears, detailed knowledge of the mechanics of music, performance craft and the instruments technology are vast subjects in themselves and to determine which is producing the effect is often baffling.

Michael Cookson makes specific mention of the Stuart & Sons piano Willems chose to play for these recordings. The technical description of the piano seems to have been taken from general press material and is not specific to the instrument Willems used. I would like to clarify some of the details for those who are interested in the sound of these new generation acoustic pianos.

This particular instrument does not have partially stabilised zirconia or alumina ceramics on the string terminating knife edges. The key to the innovation is a string coupling device that anchors the music wire to the soundboard in a vertical zigzag plane. In standard pianos this is achieved using two horizontal zigzag pins. The opposite coupling method promotes very different attack and decay transient behaviour.

The broad range of colour and other acoustic characteristics Willems produces from this piano are beyond the experience of traditional piano listening and can challenge ears accustomed to standard instruments. Willems manipulates the piano to produce the sounds he is seeking including this ability to mimic the fortepiano. The four pedals consist of the usual sustain, selective sustain, shift or una corda and dolce. The dolce pedal reduces the distance of hammer and key travel. When the dolce and/or una chord pedals are engaged individully or together it is possible to mimic the sound characteristics reminiscent of the fortepiano. Then come the cadenzas! The 'fortepiano' disappears and there is bravura modern piano with all its power and harmonic integrity! The brilliance of this instrument is almost impossible to obtain from a standard piano without harshness and other noise - this is something that shocks until the ears become accustomed to it. Soft, warm sound is comfortable but two dimensional.

To my ears these recordings are unique in that for the first time the piano and orchestra display an eerie synthesis and on repeated listening something new can be heard and possibly learnt. This recording is different from all the others in that the solo instrument is the voice of a new concept in piano building, a new tonal aesthetic for the twenty first century not the nineteenth!

I hope this conveys a different slant on listening to these recordings. Tone colour and aural beauty are to be found in the harmonic and dynamic polarities. Whereas, from a traditional perspective, the ear is comforted by warmth and
roundness in the sound envelope.

Wayne Stuart oam
Piano Maker

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