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
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
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.