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CD: Crotchet

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, op.58 (1808) [34:21]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Emperor, op.73 (1809) [39:50]
Mario Galeani (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Grzegorz Nowak
rec. 18-19 September 2007, Cadogan Hall, London. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

In the fortnight before receiving this disk for review I attended four concerts by the RPO under Nowak, at the Cadogan Hall, where the RPO is in residence and where this disk was recorded. These included four concertos by Mozart and the final four Dvořák symphonies. They were excellent performances, with superb playing and direction. Thus I was most pleased to find this disk in a parcel on my doormat.

The final two piano concertos of Beethoven pose many problems both for conductor and pianist. The Fourth appears to be lyrical and almost without incident, whilst the Fifth is full of fire, passion and drama. But both include elements of the other. The Fourth starts with the solo piano playing gently, giving the first theme, which is immediately repeated by the orchestra. Thereafter an Allegro moderato unfolds, over a large time-span, with music both gentle and spirited. The drama, such as it is, comes from the musical conflict, not from the soloist versus orchestra idea of a concerto. This performance tends towards the moderato rather than the allegro, and also encompasses slower tempi for certain moments of lyricism. To me, it feels slightly too slow, but at least it never becomes ponderous. The slow movement is well nigh perfect, the balance between piano and strings is very good, and Galeani’s responses to the urgency of the orchestra are very well placed. The finale does however seem too glib, not too fast but still it feels rushed, and there’s no real relaxation throughout the movement. As a performance it failed to satisfy me for there was a sameness almost throughout, with little variety of timbre and shading. And, perhaps, the view of the music is too romantic. This isn’t Tchaikovsky, but Beethoven in a state of change, moving from the classical to the young romantic.

The Fifth Concerto can stand a more romantic interpretation and it gets it. Both Galeani and Nowak seem happier here for the music allows for a more expansive view. However, there is some very obtrusive, and rather banal, use of rubato from the soloist which instead of “robbing time”, as rubato is supposed to do, makes for a momentary gap in the music. There is also too much heavy-handedness in the octave passages, more colour is required here to raise the passages from the ordinary to the virtuoso outbursts they are supposed to be. By the time we reached the recapitulation of the first movement the recorded sound of the piano was beginning to annoy me for it has been recorded far too closely, leaving the orchestra rather recessed. The Cadogan Hall, one of London’s newest concert halls, has a superb acoustic and I have heard the RPO there many times over the last two or three years and I have never found the balance between piano and orchestra to be anything but near perfect. There is a nice feel of the hall in this recording but I do sense that, for some reason, the engineer has favoured the soloist at the expense of the orchestra.

Ultimately, although there is some good playing here, I found these two performances unsatisfying for they are unconvincing as both performances and interpretations. For the Fourth Concerto I have had the most pleasure from the 1947 Clara Haskil recording, with the London Philharmonic under Carlo Zecchi (London/Decca Historic Series 425968, coupled with Schumann’s Concerto with Lipatti and the Suisse Romande Orchestra under Ernest Ansermet) for it is full of poetry and deep love for the music. This is an essential performance which should be on all CD shelves. Alternatively Solomon on Testament (1220 - coupled with the Third Concerto with the Philharmonia under Cluytens) offers an aristocratic performance. If you prefer a more modern recording, which I can understand, I find John Lill and Julius Katchen very reliable, in very good 1960s and 1970s sound. For the Fifth Concerto, Solomon again (Testament SBT 1221 with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges, coupled with two Mozart sonatas) for his unerring intelligence, and, again, Lill and Katchen. For me, these older performances seem more rounded and complete than many which have been committed to CD in the past twenty years. There are many who will disagree and, in the end, the performance you choose must be your choice and satisfy your musical taste. All a critic can do is help point the way, to misquote Wilfred Owen!

Bob Briggs  



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