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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15 (1796-98) [38:58] 
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58 (1805-06) [35:17]
Lang Lang (piano)
Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. January 2007, Salle Pleyel, Paris, France. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6719 [74:30] 

 


At last an opportunity for me to hear a recording from the highly promoted Lang Lang. Although one regularly hears Lang Lang excerpts on commercial radio these were my first full concertos from the youthful Chinese pianist. I was extremely interested to hear if the playing lives up to all the hype. This release also includes a bonus DVD showing interviews with the pianist and the conductor Christoph Eschenbach including clips of the recording sessions. 

Completed in 1798 the Piano Concerto No.1 was introduced the same year in Prague with Beethoven as soloist. It was composed after the Piano Concerto No.2 but was the first to be published. In the extended opening movement marked Allegro con brio Lang Lang provides sparkling playing with an enjoyable rhythmic lift. His playing feels spontaneous with only minor glimpses of flamboyance. With his crisp fingerwork he reminded me of Alfred Brendel’s 1975 London performance on Philips. The central movement Largo is given a reading of tenderness and poetry and the talented soloist never lets the music drag. The final movement Rondo, Allegro is exhilarating with powerful bravura in a boldly compelling performance. The closely recorded sound quality across both scores is rather over-bright, causing a degree of blaring in the forte passages. Throughout the Orchestre de Paris contribute greatly to the success of the performance.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 was introduced in 1807 at a private concert at his patron’s Prince Lobkowitz’s palace in Leipzig with the composer as soloist. The public première was not given until 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna with Beethoven again the soloist. This concerto is regarded by many commentators as the finest of all Beethoven’s five. In the lengthy opening movement Allegro moderato one is struck by Lang Lang’s brisk and direct articulation. There is a sureness of musical judgement as he astutely manages to avoid over-confidence. I enjoyed the restrained passion of the reading of the Andante; although the orchestra at times tends to over-dominate the proceedings. The final movement marked Rondo, Vivace does not have the cleanest of openings with a slight glitch at point 0:10-0:11. The highly convincing and enthusiastic playing abounds with sparkling virtuosity and sheer excitement. Eschenbach’s orchestra provides the soloist with a splendid platform for his performance.

The catalogues overflow with versions of the Beethoven concertos; often complete sets of all five. There are many stereo/digital recordings that I am familiar with and recently a raft of digitally remastered mono recordings have resurfaced. My introduction to the Beethoven piano concertos was my collection of vinyl recordings from the 1970s performed by Beethoven specialist John Lill with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson on the EMI ‘Classics For Pleasure’ label. Lill’s set (c/w Choral Fantasia, Op.80) is available in a three disc box from EMI ‘Classics for Pleasure’ 5757522. I still have and play my Lill vinyl records but have yet to replace them with the CDs so cannot judge the success of the transfers.

In the Piano Concerto No.1 in C major my personal favourite recordings are:

a) Solomon with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert Menges from 1956 at Abbey Road, London on Testament SBT 1219 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 2). Solomon’s love of this music is undoubted with magnificent playing of classic status. This is one of the finest Beethoven recordings. The remastered stereo sound quality from Testament is outstanding for its 50 years age.

b) Murray Perahia with the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink from 1985 in Amsterdam on Sony Classical S3K 44 575 c/w (Piano Concertos 1-5). Perahia provides exciting and expressive playing with a lightness of touch that delights the ear. The Largo is given a poetic interpretation by Perahia and is a highlight of the performance. Sony provide warm and pleasingly clear sonics without being outstanding.

c) Emil Gilels with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell from 1968 in Cleveland on EMI ‘Double Forte’ 5 69506 2 (c/w Piano Concertos 1-4). Direct and eminently approachable playing from Gilels that I found persuasive and unaffected. Gilels takes the slow movement at a slow pace and is extremely expressive. The issue is enhanced by a warm and clear sound from the EMI engineers. 

d) Alfred Brendel and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernard Haitink from London in 1975 on Philips Classics 422 937-2 (c/w Piano Concertos 1-5; Choral Fantasia, Op.80). Consummate artistry from Brendel who provides exhilarating playing. Marvellous fingerwork and convincing dramatic contrasts. Brendel is extremely poetic in the Largo without over-indulgence. Vivid, cool and well balanced sound from Philips.

My preferred versions of the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major are:

a) Solomon with the Philharmonia Orchestra under André Cluytens from 1952 at the Kingsway Hall, London on Testament SBT 1220 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 3). In a performance of the highest gravity Solomon’s playing and insights are remarkable. The remastered mono sound quality from Testament is exceedingly successful for its age of over 50 years.

b) Wilhelm Kempff with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Ferdinand Leitner. from Berlin in 1961 on Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ 447 402-2 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 5). Kempff blends exhilaration with poetry and one feels the spontaneity of the reading that is especially noticeable in the Finale. Kempff’s slow movement is tender and satisfying with a strong sense of wisdom. The DG engineers have supplied a good sound quality although a touch sharp in the Forte passages.

c) Clifford Curzon with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Knappertsbusch from Vienna in 1954 on Decca ‘Legendary Performances’ 467 126-2 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 5). The thoughtful and perceptive Curzon communicates significant drama in the outer movements. In the Andante Curzon provides deep concentration with a tender and restrained approach. The remastered 1954 mono recording does not possess the clarity of the new versions but the transfer is more than acceptable.

d) Maurizio Pollini with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Karl Böhm from 1976 in Vienna on Deutsche Grammophon ‘Classikon’ 439 483-2 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 5). This is classy, highly assured and thoughtful playing from Pollini that is splendidly articulated with especially crisp fingerwork. I thoroughly enjoyed Pollini’s slow movement which is memorable and involving. The desirability of the digitally remastered DG issue is enhanced by the clarity of the sonics.   

e) Claudio Arrau with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis from Dresden in 1984 on Philips ‘50 Great Recordings’ 289 464 681-2 (c/w Piano Concerto No. 5). Arrau provides cultured playing that feels natural and unforced. Extreme dynamic contrasts do not interest Arrau. The interpretation from Arrau in the Andante is poetic and deeply felt. Philips offer a warm and well balanced digital recording.     

Lang Lang shines in these two concertos and establishes himself in the premier league of Beethoven interpreters. His sparkling playing and considerable insights make for joyous listening. Whilst crystal clear I found the closely recorded and over-bright sound quality rather less enjoyable. The booklet notes contain a gushing essay about the talents of Lang Lang and his association with Eschenbach. I would have preferred a little more information about the concertos.

Michael Cookson

 


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