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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1:
Piano Concerto: No. 1 in C op.15a (1797) [32:28], No. 5 in E flat op.73, “Emperor”b (1809) [38:24].
CD 2:
Piano Concerto: No. 2 in B flat op.19a (1793-95) [38:24]; Piano Sonatas: No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31/2, “Tempest” (1801-02) [22:05]; No. 18 in E flat, Op. 31/3 (1801-02) [23:53].
CD 3:
Piano Concerto: No. 3 in C minor op. 37a (1803) [33:53]; No. 4 in G op.58a (1805/6) [33:52];
Cor de Groot (piano)
aVienna Symphony Orchestra, bHague Philharmonic Orchestra/Willem van Otterloo rec. 1950-1954. ADD
DOREMI DHR-7937-9 [3 CDs: 70:52 + 72:21 + 67:45]
Experience Classicsonline


 

Cor de Groot was born in 1914 in Amsterdam and died in 1993, near Hilversum. He won First Prize in the 1936 Vienna International Piano competition and operated mainly as a Philips artist. In 1959 he suffered paralysis of his right hand but continued performing, in the left-hand repertory. In 1960 he became director of the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation.

The orchestral exposition to the first movement of the First Concerto is expertly handled and magnificently rendered here - the recording is clear and detailed. Jacob Harnoy, who dedicates this set to the memory of his wife Carmela, has done a sterling job. The piano sound is true and clear, and we can hear a myriad tonal gradations from de Groot. There is a real and continual sense of play between piano and orchestra in the first movement. De Groot’s fingers are meticulously clean of attack in this concerto - like the Second, this is a work that mercilessly shows up any slight miscalculations. It is the second of the three cadenzas that is heard here - the shortest - and it is despatched with much aplomb. The Largo is given a reading of the utmost depth, with some sterling contributions from the orchestra although wind tuning is not as spot-on as the Vienna Symphony’s Philharmonic brothers would doubtless have provided. The finale finds de Groot’s fingers in exceptionally nimble fettle. The cadenza here leaves me at a loss as to its author - no clue is given in the documentation - so I can only assume it is by de Groot himself. He ensures it is a substantial enough statement to make its mark.

Similar traits mark out the Second Concerto. De Groot’s fingerwork is a source of consistent delight. De Groot here opts not to play Beethoven’s cadenza – although which one he gives us is not credited. The slow movement is again the highlight, with fluid lines and a real sense of communication between soloist and orchestra; the finale is full of vim from the soloist. The orchestral playing can be on the ragged side, though.

The sound for the Third Concerto is rather recessed and echoey. This is particularly noticeable during the orchestral exposition. The solo sound is better although the bass end of the piano is rather fuzzy. De Groot’s interpretation is of laser-like focus; van Otterloo’s accompaniment is ever supportive but does not match his soloist’s dynamism. De Groot finds many “hidden lines” amongst the left-hand accompaniments, but these never sound gratuitously generated. The pedal-less split octaves around the nine-minute mark sound rather dry. Again, there is a question mark over the cadenza – it is certainly not the rather inferior one we routinely hear these days. De Groot’s cadenza clearly has aspirations to inhabit worlds further along the timeline than the rest of the concerto, and is all the more fascinating for its exploratory nature. Interestingly, it tags nicely into the expected trills via the end of Beethoven’s cadenza but without closing on the mediant in the treble voice; the treble here descends to the tonic. The slow movement approaches a great performance. It possesses all the elasticity it requires without going out of style; woodwind contributions are all audible … even the bassoon solos.  The finale is full of life - although the distancing of the orchestra does rob that side of things of a little bit of vim. Again, there are certain moments where the dryness of the pianist’s pedalling may come as a surprise, and the coda is surprisingly under tempo so it loses the spring in its step.

The warm G-major of the Fourth Concerto finds a superlative interpreter in the Vienna Symphony, whose silky string sound is a joy. Van Otterloo accompanies superbly here, his strings mirroring de Groot exactly in the more interior moments. This is a most affectionate performance that nevertheless never undersells moments of dynamism. The cadenza this time brings familiar ground (the first and most famous one) – and beautifully sculpted it is, too. I love de Groot’s way with the slow movement – deeply reflective and unhurried. Van Otterloo galvanises the orchestra into a near-frenzied contribution to the finale; de Groot just fails to blaze as much. And yet there is plenty to enjoy here. The brief cadenza (Beethoven) is given with much élan. Backhaus remains my preferred interpreter here - for Backhaus with visuals, try the version with Böhm and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Euroarts.

The “Emperor” is the only concerto accompanied by the Hague Philharmonic, van Otterloo’s own orchestra, where he was chief conductor from 1949 to 1973. This is a resplendent reading. It glows - both orchestra and piano - from the off, with de Groot glittering and commanding in his responses to the massive tutti chords. This is a big-boned, extrovert “Emperor”. Unfortunately there is smudging in the recording, leading to loss of orchestral detail, particularly in the mid-range around the ten-minute mark - not enough to detract from a lively performance, though. The Hague strings are gorgeously caught for the opening of the Adagio un poco moto. This is no second-league orchestra. The slow movement is beautiful without plumbing any absolute depths – similarly, the magic of the transition into the finale is half-there, half-missed. De Groot’s swiftness of finger ensures that the swirling semiquavers reveal no sense of strain. Like Pollini, de Groot has no problems slowing down when he feels it appropriate … and in the same places, too. The sound in the final bars is rather raw, a pity as this is a distinguished “Emperor”.

The two bonus items, two sonatas, are included on the second disc after the Second Concerto. The “Tempest” is given a superbly articulated account. The returns of the Largo in the first movement are always treated with mystery; perhaps the Allegro ripostes could have a tad more urgency about them though. Nothing amiss with the expressive Adagio, though, a marvellous mix of the forlorn and the tender. The finale is swift - perhaps too swift for allegretto, even taking into account the 3/8 time signature - and has much drive. The E flat Sonata of the Op. 31 group has a first movement possessed of near-Mozartian lightness – a different, and interesting, interpretative slant. The Scherzo is indeed of that determined, spiky humour so often designated as Beethovenian - nice off-beat accents. The reflective mood of the Menuetto - which admittedly is marked “Moderato” - veers uncomfortably towards the stolid; the finale, in complete contrast, is remarkable for its jollity and is, indeed, very close to the “Presto” marking.

This release may be supplemented with the work that APR has done on behalf of the pianist; APR5612 contains a 1942 “Emperor”. Notes from Doremi are fairly minimal and confined to general biographies of pianist and conductor. Despite this, this remains a set of vital interest to pianophiles. Cor de Groot is never less than fascinating, and is frequently illuminating.

Colin Clarke

 


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