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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The five Piano Concertos and Choral Fantasia

Concerto No.1, Op.15 in C major (1800) [39:27]
Concerto No.2, Op.19 in B flat major (1795) [29:56]
Concerto No.3, Op.37 in C minor (1800) [36:16]
Concerto No.4, Op.58 in G major (1805) [34:45]
Concerto No.5, Op.73 "Emperor" in E flat major (1810) [58:05]
*Choral Fantasia, Op.80 in C minor (1808) [19:42]
Emanuel Ax (pianist)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/André Previn;
*New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Rec. *Live/Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London/EMI Abbey Road Studios, London, *1983/5/6. DDD
BMG RCA RED SEAL 76557032 [3CDs: 69:23+71:01+58:05]
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This is a really good box-set collection of Beethoven's five piano concertos. Emanuel Ax pays the utmost deference to the notes and delivers a refreshingly honest interpretation. On a par with the polished musical performances is the physical packaging that narrates a detailed account of the works. In generous yet digestible paragraphs, the CD booklet is divided up according to the stylistic categories, grouping the first two concertos, concertos 3 and 4, concerto 5 and the Choral Fantasia respectively.

It is difficult to fault this recording on technical grounds. Ax and Previn have a musical compatibility that announces all five concerti with the utmost confidence. The opening movement of the first concerto (chronologically second to what we know as the Op.19 second piano concerto in B flat) is superbly crafted. Ax’s ease and virtuosity is at the same time tenderly vulnerable – we can hear each of the notes sound as delicately as though he were playing a slow movement. Previn conducts a more cerebrally conceived orchestral support that nurtures the piano solo in an endearing embrace.

This dialectic dynamic is very much the soul of the Ax/Previn interpretations, and especially in the earlier compositions. As the concerti progress, an increasingly dynamic piano scoring accounts for a gradual shift in proportions so that by the fifth and last concerto – famously nicknamed the "Emperor" – the piano is clearly in command. Ax makes this transition but the force of his conviction is too moderate. Although attention to dynamics is precise, the spirit and emotion is often chastened by the meticulous technician in Ax. This tendency holds him back from conjuring magic in the sublime slow movements.

When another brilliant pianist (Kempff) recorded these piano concerti (with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the 1950s), he talked of "the deep twilight" of the central Largo from Concerto No.1 in C. Kempff’s audience can feel the physical manifestation of this intellectual empathy. Ax would do well to have more faith in his musical fantasies.

The final disc rounds off with a live recording of the Choral Fantasia under the baton of Zubin Mehta. The Fantasia was composed in 1808 as a light finale to an epic concert delivered by Beethoven himself. The concert included the fifth and sixth symphonies, the fourth piano concerto, two movements from the recently composed Mass in C, a vocal solo and a fantasia for solo piano. So what better way to experience a so-called ‘authentic’ experience of this humble forerunner to the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth than to build up to it with the entire cycle of piano concerti on this recording in one sitting?

Aline Nassif

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