Recording of the Month
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770 –1827) The Complete Piano Concertos
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [38:18]
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1793-98) [29:25]
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) [36:04]
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [33:23]
Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, Op. 15 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [38:50]
Paul Lewis (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek
rec. July, November 2009, March 2010, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London and November 2009, Air Studios, London. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902053.55 [3 CDs: 67:48 + 69:31 + 38:53]
Paul Lewis (b.1972) has already acquired a substantial reputation, not least through his survey of all thirty-two piano sonatas by Beethoven, which he performed in recitals all round the world between 2005 and 2007. His studio recordings of the sonatas - issued, like this present set, by Harmonia Mundi – have attracted widespread acclaim. I was lucky enough to hear him give Beethoven sonata recitals at the Cheltenham Music Festivals of 2006 (review) and 2007 (review) and on both those occasions I was deeply impressed by his performances. Subsequently, I acquired his full set of the sonatas on CD, which more than confirmed the favourable impression of those concerts. So with his Beethovenian credentials firmly established as far as I was concerned, the prospect of hearing Paul Lewis in recordings of all five Beethoven concertos was extremely enticing.
Linked, no doubt, to the release of the CDs, Lewis is playing all five concertos at the 2010 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – the first pianist to perform all five in the same Proms season - though only in numbers One and Four has he been accompanied by his partners on these CDs, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jirí Belohlávek (review). In the Second concerto he was partnered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons (review). At the time of writing this review performances of the Third concerto and the ‘Emperor’ are still to take place.
In appraising these performances I’d like to start with the Second concerto because, although this work was published after Concerto No 1, it was the first to be written. This is the most lightly scored of the five concertos, requiring one flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns plus the usual strings. In spirit as well as scoring it seems most fully to inhabit the eighteenth century. Jirí Belohlávek seems fully in tune with this and he gets the opening Allegro con brio off to a bracing start, the dotted rhythms well sprung. Lewis treats us to some playful pianism in this movement and he receives lively support throughout from the orchestra. Although it’s not stated in the documentation, all the cadenzas played by Paul Lewis in these performances are Beethoven’s own. The one that he provided for the Second concerto was written out, I believe, some years after the first performances of the work; Lewis delivers it very well indeed.
His account of the slow movement is beautifully articulated. The tempo marking is adagio, which is how Lewis and Belohlávek take it yet the music is kept pleasingly fluid and forward-moving. Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny, likened this movement to a dramatic vocal scena. I’m not quite sure I see that: there seems to me to be too much decoration in the solo part, which gives an improvisatory feel to the proceedings. Lewis seems to treat the movement more as a pensive nocturne and he brings it off very well indeed. The finale is an infectious, gay rondo. Very rightly both conductor and soloist use the sforzandi and accents, in which the movement abounds, as springboards through which they impel the music forward. Lewis’s playing is sprightly, witty and light on its feet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra match him in every respect. The movement really dances along and I enjoyed it very much.
Moving backwards numerically but forwards in time we come to the First concerto. Beethoven conceived this work on a grander scale. Not only is it a significantly longer piece but the scoring is richer and more extrovert for Beethoven added a pair of clarinets to the orchestra required for the Second concerto and, crucially, he also introduces timpani and a pair of trumpets, thus following the precedent set by Mozart in several of his grander late piano concertos. Belohlávek shapes the opening orchestral passage splendidly, obtaining spruce and elegant playing from the BBCSO. When Lewis joins in his playing offers grace and energy in equal measure. For much of the time the performance is light and genial but there’s a touch of steel at certain points, which I welcome. My listening notes identify several places where Lewis’s touch or imagination – or both – are especially pleasing. One stands out particularly. At 9:03 the soloist has a short, descending flourish before the opening theme returns on full orchestra. I’ve heard some pianists play the passage in semi-quavers, as written. Others treat it as more of a glissando – Lewis’s one-time teacher, Alfred Brendel, does this in his Philips recording with Simon Rattle. Lewis also takes it as a glissando but, dare I say it, he brings it off much more thrillingly than Brendel. He makes it into a glissando down almost the entire length of the piano. Not only does he make this an exciting moment but also it’s rhetorically and stylistically important, I think. Such a gesture underlines the journey that Beethoven would undertake in the course of these five concertos from the eighteenth-century, Mozartian world to that of the nineteenth-century Romantic concerto. Like many other pianists, Lewis plays the longest and most discursive of the three cadenzas, one of them incomplete, that Beethoven wrote out for the first movement of this concerto. I do have a slight reservation about this since the cadenza plays for about five minutes (from 12:13 – 17:17 here), which is a substantial span in a movement lasting about 18 minutes in total: does this unbalance the movement? On the other hand, this cadenza allows for a very full discussion of the movement’s musical material and when it’s played as excellently as is the case here then doubts are effectively silenced.
The slow movement is marked Largo and the broad pace adopted here is not only completely convincing but also permits a very expressive account of the music. The BBC woodwind principals impress hereabouts, especially the first clarinet player, whose final, melting little solo (10:38) is a particular delight. The voicing of the first of the three wind chords at the very end isn’t completely unanimous and though this is an extremely minor blemish one notices it simply because all the preceding playing has been so distinguished. The vivacious account of the impish rondo finale is a delight from first bar to last. This is music that should fairly bubble and that’s just what happens here in a performance that combines wit and dexterity on the part of both Paul Lewis and the orchestral players. It sets the seal on a winning reading of the concerto.
The scoring of the Third concerto is identical to that of the First, save that Beethoven adds a second flute. However, the conception is grander and it’s surely no coincidence that Beethoven composed this concerto in a minor key, a sure sign of Great Intent on his part. From the outset the orchestral writing has an increased strength and vigour, well realised by Belohlávek and his players, and when the soloist begins he has more of a grand entrance than was the case in either of the earlier concertos. Lewis and the orchestra shape the dialogue between them very well in a performance that is admirably taut but which also has the right amount of spaciousness. The dramatic passages impress very much – Lewis is a fine exponent of Beethoven’s pianistic rhetoric – but the delicate passages, of which there are many, are just as successful. Lewis tops off his reading with a fine account of the cadenza.
The slow movement, in warm E major, strikes me as Beethoven’s deepest concerto movement to date. There’s also a new sensuousness to the music. Lewis’s playing has a touch of magic about him and, in support, Belohlávek obtains a response from his orchestra that is consistently excellent and eloquent. As an example of the high quality of the performance I’d single out the lovely touch of inwardness in the passage beginning at 5:02. A little later on, at 7:08, Lewis places the “wrong note” ascending scales beautifully. A few moments later, in the short cadenza, Beethoven writes the injunction sempre con gran espressione. To be honest, on this occasion that instruction is superfluous both at this point and elsewhere: that’s what we’ve been hearing throughout the course of the movement. Lewis eases into the main subject of the rondo finale delightfully – one of many occasions throughout this set where he uses rubato felicitously. The reading of this movement is full of wit and good humour and there are many little touches that will bring a smile to the listener’s face. The whole movement sparkles, not least in the concluding presto (from 8:14), which is engagingly vivacious.
The Fourth concerto is my personal favourite; I love its mix of lyricism and philosophy. The simple, unaffected eloquence of Lewis’s opening solo promises much, as does the subsequent orchestral tutti, which is skilfully shaped by Belohlávek. As we’ve experienced in the previous concertos, Lewis’s interplay with the orchestra is very well done. He’s unafraid to use rubato or briefly to slow the pace to make an expressive point. On every occasion that he does so – and this is true in the other works also – the effect is not exaggerated and is tastefully done. At one point in my listening notes I wrote “grace, elegance & lyricism” and, on reflection, that will serve as a good summary of Paul Lewis’s pianism throughout this movement. He uses Beethoven’s first cadenza, the one which is most commonly heard.
For the slow movement Beethoven makes the soloist change from philosopher to poet. Lewis isn’t perhaps as hushed of tone as some pianists I’ve heard but this is of a piece with his unaffected, natural approach to the work as a whole and I find it completely convincing. The forthright rondo is full of high spirits and I thoroughly enjoyed the good humoured way in which Lewis and Belohlávek put it across, culminating in an exhilarating account of the presto coda.
And so to the ‘Emperor’. The opening piano flourishes are commanding, as they should be, after which we plunge into the new world of the Romantic piano concerto with Belohlávek investing the orchestral introduction with a fine impetus. The performance that unfolds is a virile one but, at the same time, it’s far from lacking in sensitivity on the part of either the soloist or the orchestra. Indeed, it can be best summed up as an excellent and well judged combination of grandeur and lyricism.
The slow movement is very fine indeed. The mood is beautifully set by Belohlávek and his players, who give a most refined account of the orchestral introduction – I’d describe the playing as silky. For all the excellence of his pianism elsewhere in the set Paul Lewis seems to reserve some of his most poetic playing for the ruminative pages that comprise this movement. The whole piece is quite magical, not least the wonderful transition into the finale. This final movement bounds along with great vigour. Although the marking con brio is absent from the printed page that’s very much the spirit of this performance. The music making has the same gusto that one should experience in a successful reading of the first movement of the Seventh symphony. This sets the seal on a very fine and satisfying account of this magnificent concerto.
This set of the Beethoven piano concertos is a very considerable achievement. Throughout the set Paul Lewis offers playing of the very highest level of accomplishment and he evidences great understanding of Beethoven’s idiom and style – all this one would expect from an artist who has already given us such a notable sonata cycle. His performances of all five concertos are highly enjoyable and very satisfying. Not once in some three hours of music making did I hear anything that I disliked or that jarred. What I did experience was a great deal of intelligent, stylish and very musical playing and I found this set of performances to be enjoyable and stimulating from start to finish.
Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide adept support throughout. For whatever reason it seemed that the orchestra lost its way to some extent during the time that Leonard Slatkin was at its helm. From performances that I’ve heard and some of the reviews that I’ve read it appears that the partnership with Belohlávek is a fruitful one and that he’s developed a good rapport with the players, which is producing good and consistent results. On the evidence of their contribution to this set the partnership is working well and Belohlávek proves himself to be a sympathetic and very able accompanist. It was evident, following in the scores, that the players are attentive to dynamics and other important matters of detail.
The recorded sound is good. The soloist is placed quite forwardly but not excessively so and the engineers have captured the sound of the piano very well. The sound of the orchestra is faithfully reported and generally the balance with the soloist is good. Just occasionally I thought that some quiet orchestral details were masked by the piano but this is a very minor matter. The booklet contains a useful essay by Jean-Paul Montagnier, though the English translation has some careless slips that should have been picked up with more careful proof reading.
It’s interesting to note in passing that at the time he recorded these performances Paul Lewis was about one year older than was Beethoven himself at the time he completed the Fourth concerto. I have no doubt that he will continue to deepen and refine his interpretations of these great works over time and if he gets the chance to record them again in twenty years time I hope I’ll be around to hear the results. But if that doesn’t happen it doesn’t matter because these splendid, stylish performances offer enough to keep me very happy for years to come. Paul Lewis is a very considerable Beethoven interpreter and the appearance of this set is a cause for great rejoicing.
This set of the Beethoven piano concertos is a very considerable achievement