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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Piano Concertos
CD 1
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in C Op.15 (1795) [32:28]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.3 in c minor Op.37 (1797-1803) [33:57]
CD 2
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in B flat Op.19 (1793-5) [29:13]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G Op.58 (1806-8) [34:41]
CD 3
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat Op.73 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [36:54]
Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra in C Op.56 ‘Triple Concerto’ (1808)* [34:53]
Christian Zacharias (piano)
Heinrich Schiff (cello)*; Ulf Hoelscher (violin)*
Staatskapelle Dresden/Hans Vonk; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig*/Kurt Masur*
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden (Piano Concertos) 28-29 August, 1989 (No.1); 9-11 September 1988 (No.3); 30 September and 3 October 1986 (Nos. 2 & 4); 10-12 January 1988 (Emperor); Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, 10-13 September 1984 (Triple Concerto). DDD
Booklet with notes in English, French and German
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLES 5 00927 2 [3 CDs: 66:35 + 63:54 + 72:21]



When these recordings first appeared, the consensus was that, good as they were, the competition even then was too fierce for them to be recommendable at full price. Though there were then not many CDs at less than full price, Nos. 2 and 4 had the misfortune to appear alongside Cristina Ortiz’s versions of the same two concertos on the budding Pickwick budget label. Incredibly, EMI originally offered the Emperor Concerto on its own – all of 37 minutes on a full-price CD, though that was soon re-coupled with the Third Concerto. Now that the competition is even more ferocious, is this set recommendable at super-bargain price? (3 CDs for around £10 in the UK.)

In fact, like the EMI Triples box of the Mendelssohn Quartets (review coming shortly), some of these recordings have been available since 2001 at budget price on the EMI Encore label: Nos. 3 and 5 on 5 74721 2; Triple Concerto with Violin Romances on 5 74722 2 – in which form they remain available.

The most obvious comparison for the Piano Concertos is with the Kovacevich/Davis versions. Concertos 1-4 are available on Philips Duo 442 577-2; the Emperor is coupled with an excellent performance of Piano Sonata No.30 on 422 482-2, or with the Triple Concerto and Violin Concerto on Duo 442 580-2. Long ago I got to know the Beethoven Piano Concertos from Wihlem Kempff’s recordings but I later transferred my affection to Kovacevich and it is with his versions of the Concertos that my comparisons have been made. You could still do a lot worse than with the Kempff: Jonathan Woolf was very enthusiastic about the reissue on the Rosette Collection of his mono recordings (476 5299) but most will prefer the stereo re-makes (427 237-2, 3 CDs at around £16 in the UK, or Nos. 1-4 on 459 400-2, No. 5 with the Triple Concerto and Violin Concerto on 459 403-2, both two-for-one sets, or 4 and 5 on 447 402-2, at mid-price.)

By comparison with Kovacevich, Zacharias’s tempi are generally fast: where Kovacevich takes 17:44 for the opening movement of No.1, Zacharias takes only 13:19, partly, but certainly not wholly, because of the different cadenzas employed. In the slow movements of Nos.2, 3 and the Emperor the differences are even more extreme – 10:24 against 8:44, 10:48 against 9:01 and 9:07 against 6:55. These are the most extreme examples; elsewhere Zacharias is slightly slower than Kovacevich. Rather than concentrate on these movements where the tempi differ so markedly, I listened to the Zacharias versions blind, only later returning to the problem movements for a ‘Building a Library’ comparison. The one thing that I had in mind at this stage was my knowledge that fellow Musicweb reviewer Paul Shoemaker has a high regard for Zacharias as an exponent of Mozart – how much does he stress the Mozartian elements in these concertos?

Beethoven both displays his debt to Mozart (and Haydn, though he would not acknowledge it) and asserts his own personality in the opening of Concerto No.1, even before the entry of the soloist. The Staatskapelle bring out both these elements, the bold statements and the lighter touches, very well. The piano opens with one of those lighter touches and Zacharias brings great delicacy to this section, with light-fingered playing which would not be out of place in Mozart. He is also fully able to capture the spirit of the more assertive passages. The tempo is fast but articulation and phrasing never suffer and the recording catches both the softest of touches from the soloist and the orchestra and those more assertive passages. The rather rudimentary notes in the booklet describe the First Concerto as ‘spacious’ and this is fully brought out, despite the fastish tempo.

The booklet does not indicate the provenance of the cadenza, but I understand that Zacharias employs Beethoven’s own throughout. The cadenza is played with flying fingers in about a minute, never outstaying its welcome.

The opening of the first movement in the Philips version is much more deliberate, tending to stress the Beethovenian rather than the Mozartian qualities. Though Kovacevich is as light-fingered as Zacharias, he does tend, like the orchestra, to emphasise the more assertive passages a little more than Zacharias. The recording is perhaps a little more opaque than the EMI, but not at all bad for 1970 ADD: it never gets in the way of appreciation of the performance. Again, the notes in my copy do not specify the cadenza employed – I am working from the older note-free single-CD issue on Philips Concert Classics, still available singly (1 and 2 on 422 968-2); the notes in the Duo reissue may be more informative. There is little to choose in virtuosity between the two soloists here but the Kovacevich’s cadenza is longer and marked by greater variety of tempo. You pay your money and take your pick whether you find the longer cadenza more varied or more long-winded.

In the slow movement and finale Zacharias and Vonk certainly bring out the spaciousness of the music: tempi are very similar to those of Kovacevich/Davis and performance honours are about even in these movements, though the greater clarity and spaciousness of the EMI recording are again in evidence as against the more-than-acceptable Philips. By the end of the First Concerto I was beginning to wonder whether my commitment to Kovacevich might be wavering.

Concerto No.2 was actually Beethoven’s first, so one would expect Zacharias’s Mozartian credentials to stand up well here – as, indeed, they do, though the Beethovenian aspects of the music are not missed by soloist or orchestra. Some have compared Zacharias’s sparkling, crisp articulation with Kempff, an especially apt comparison for me in this concerto, which I first heard in the Kempff/Leitner version on an LP borrowed from the Oxford University Record Library. The slow movement is faster than on the Kovacevich recording but there was no sense that it felt too hurried at any time. The finale is extremely well handled. Once again, the performance holds up surprisingly well against the Kovacevich and the recording again has the edge over the Philips.

The Third Concerto is in many ways my favourite, with Beethoven fully his own person. The minor-key orchestral opening, with its hint of mysteries to come, is very well handled here, as is its modulation into something more hopeful before the piano entry. Again, the pianism is remarkable for its agility and delicacy of touch, here and throughout the movement – not least in the cadenza. The slow movement of this concerto is as intense as that of any of the late piano sonatas: it receives a suitably intense performance here. Listening to it without comparative timings to hand, I would never have imagined that it was almost two minutes faster than the Kovacevich: it never felt hurried. The finale is pretty well ideal: on first listening, I thought I noticed some awkwardness of phrasing, but this was not apparent on re-hearing. A glorious free-wheeling performance.

Did I say that the Third Concerto was my favourite? Hearing Zacharias’s version of the Fourth, I’m now not so sure. It’s that little bit freer from the pompousness that sometimes spoils my enjoyment of Beethoven, especially in the Emperor Concerto and the Fifth Symphony and Zacharias plays it in a way which minimises what pompousness there is – the Mozart touch again, perhaps. Yet the performance never minimises the fact that this is a work with something important to say.

Can Zacharias repeat the trick for the Emperor Concerto? Yes, he does – it may be that I have warmed towards this concerto, but I did not experience any of the annoyances that I sometimes feel when hearing it. Delicacy of touch is again combined with ability to pull out the stops when the music requires it, without my ever feeling that Beethoven was overdoing things. On its first appearance this performance was praised for its sensitivity and energy but found wanting for the power and reach of Beethoven’s arguments. These ‘failings’ are my very reason for liking the performance. What about the tempo for the second movement? Again, as in Nos. 2 and 3, I did not feel that it was too hurried.

In the Triple Concerto, too, another favourite work of mine and an unjustly neglected work, nothing was overdone: the work’s affinity with the Archduke Trio rather than with the Emperor is paramount, though, again, the big statements are given their full – not over-full – weight. The other soloists, the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur all make excellent partners for Zacharias. Originally coupled with the Violin Romances, which many collectors will already have, this recording now makes an excellent companion for the Piano Concertos.

Alternative bargain-price versions of the Triple Concerto are the Oistrakh-Oborin-Knushevitzky-Sargent on EMI Gemini 3 81487 2 (2 CDs at super-bargain price, with an excellent version of the Brahms Double Concerto, etc.) It is with this version of the Triple that I have made my comparisons. Here, as in comparisons between Kovacevich’s and Zacharias’s tempi in the Piano Concertos, the tempo for the opening movement, at 17:03, is noticeably brisker than the 19:12 on the Gemini recording. This leads to a slight tendency to underplay the big statements but, as with the Emperor Concerto, I found this a benefit rather than a drawback.

Many think very highly of the Oistrakh-Rostropich-Richter-Karajan version of the Triple Concerto, on EMI 4 76886 2 at mid price, but this version is too well-drilled for me. (Admittedly, I haven’t heard it since its LP incarnation, which was regarded as problematical sound-wise, but it was the performance, not the recording, that I disliked.) I first got to know this work almost simultaneously via the Gemini version above and the Anda-Schneiderhahn-Fournier-Fricsay version on DG 477 5341, coupled with the Brahms Double Concerto and I still have a very high regard for both these versions. Ateş Orga made the bargain-price Arte Nova version (82876 64015 2, unusually coupled with the Septet) a Musicweb Bargain of the Month and David Dunsmore also sang the praises of this version.

The two most recent editions of the Penguin Guide declare the recording of the c minor concerto to be analogue but I have no reason to doubt that the details above are correct – that it is a digital recording made in 1988. All the recordings are excellent, with the three instruments well separated from each other in the Triple Concerto, and with the soloist(s) well defined against the orchestra throughout, but not unduly highlighted. I played some of the concertos on both of my systems: one mellower, the other brighter. The results were excellent in both cases: like the best recordings, it is faithful without drawing attention to itself.

The information in the tri-lingual booklet is fairly brief, but much better than the little or nothing that purchasers of bargain-price recordings often receive. Like all these EMI Triples, the cover is pretty non-descript.

This is now the least expensive way to obtain the five Piano Concertos and the Triple Concerto. That, combined with the fact that I had absolutely no serious criticisms of any of these CDs, earns it a thumbs-up. It may not be among the very best, but it is very good: it may even supplant Kovacevich/Davis as my version of choice. Those who have read my campaign for the restoration of the Kovacevich/Davis Mozart Concerto recordings, in my review of the recent Regis/Tirimo recordings, will recognise that as praise indeed.

Brian Wilson




 


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