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
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.
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
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.
the Piano Concerto No.1 in C major my personal favourite
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.
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.
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.
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.
preferred versions of the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major
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.
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
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.
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.