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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major op. 19 (1795) [31:21]
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major op. 73 – "Emperor" (1809) [39:31]
John O’Conor (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Andreas Delfs
rec. 16-18 January 2007, Jerwood Hall, LSO-St. Lukes, London
TELARC CD-80675 [69:18]

This is the beginning of a new cycle of the Beethoven concertos, sponsored by John and Pauline Ryan.

Don’t hold it against Andreas Delfs if the very first chord of Concerto no. 2 is not quite together, since the following tutti is allowed to unfold with dignity and majesty and he is an attentive collaborator.

John O’Conor has made a particular speciality of Beethoven for at least two decades. His fluent, unforced pianism suggests long familiarity with the composer, yet at the same time there is an attractive freshness to it all. There is no especial point-making. Go to the recent Argerich/Abbado version if flair and personality – though always at the service of the composer – are what you require. O’Conor’s mentor Kempff was hardly a "dynamic" Beethovenian yet a brief reminder of his earlier cycle with Paul van Kempen revealed a strength and tension we don’t get here. Still, O’Conor’s attractive stream of silvery sound is one kind of Beethovenian truth.

Having recently worked my way through O’Conor’s Beethoven sonata cycle from the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was curious to know if his approach to the composer had changed or deepened in the meantime. Not really, I’d say. Back then, too, his gentle, fluent way led him towards certain Beethovenian depths – a few of the sonatas were considerable achievements – while others seemingly remained a closed door to him.

And so it is here. The opening flourishes of the "Emperor" suggest that the performances simply isn’t going to be big enough. There is more strength in the orchestral chords than in the pianist’s unhurried, unforced response. Delfs then leads a tutti of real breadth and grandeur which would have been splendid if he’d found a different pianist at the other end of it. O’Conor already slows down in his upwards scale, producing slight ensemble problems. He then drifts into an attractive reverie of his own, nice but unconnected with the job in hand. And so it goes on throughout the outer movements, the conductor picking up the tension, the pianist dropping it. I suppose O’Conor’s way of treating Beethoven as an amiably discursive precursor of John Field – another of O’Conor’s specialities – might have worked better with a conductor and maybe a chamber orchestra willing to follow him along this particular path. But could Beethoven’s orchestra be "de-Beethovenized" to that extent?

It is in the slow movement that O’Conor’s approach comes off best. He does not choose an ultra-slow tempo, he does not plumb the depths, he plays it like a Field nocturne, with a gentle, rocking rhythm, never losing the flow. It is not the profoundest of Beethovenian truths but it is an attractive one.

It was always on the cards that the "Emperor" would be the least suited to the O’Conor approach. Perhaps the 4th concerto will redress the balance somewhat. Beautiful recording.

PS. Right now, the Pavlov reaction amongst music lovers and pianophiles in particular to the names of Beethoven and O’Conor is evoke a third name: Joyce Hatto. I drag this in only for the sake of a disclaimer. O’Conor’s Beethoven cycle was, as all the world knows, the source for most of the "Hatto" cycle, and there has been some talk to the effect that this scandal has at least given prominence to some fine but little-known pianists. Cynics who note that a brand new Beethoven concerto cycle is beginning with O’Conor may be smirkingly suspecting a spin-off effect. But no, this first volume was set down a month, almost to the day, before the scandal broke, and no doubt the actual planning, booking the artists and recording team and so on, began a year or two earlier still.

Christopher Howell


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