Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G Op.58 (1806-8) [34:08]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat Op.73 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [38:32]
Till Fellner (piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano
rec. May and November 2008, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montréal
ECM NEW SERIES 2114 [72:40]

The pairing of Beethoven’s last two great piano concertos on one disc has been done quite a few times and works well. Even though the shock of hearing the Piano Concerto No.4 open with the solo piano and not a violin in sight is now a 200 year old trick it still has a momentarily disorientating effect if you’ve only recently moved on from Mozart.

I was bowled over by Austrian pianist Till Fellner’s Bach recordings on ECM, and so leapt at the chance to hear him in these two great pieces. He and Kent Nagano have worked together frequently over the last ten years, and so they have an impeccable synergy and understanding of each other’s musical ideas and approach both in general, and clearly in these works. This is something which comes through from start to finish in these recordings. Beethoven’s concertos demand both power and sensitivity from soloist and orchestra, and this recording just oozes quality at every level.

Quality and musical partnership is one thing, add a unity of artistic vision and the picture is pretty much complete. Coming back to the Piano Concerto No.4 after a while busying myself with other things, and the first thing that crossed my mind when first hearing the opening Allegro moderato was, ‘hey, this is slow …’ Grabbing the complete concertos box with Evgeny Kissin on EMI, and I was both reassured and somewhat confused. Fellner’s timing in this movement is 18:46 to Kissin’s 20:55, so not so slow after all. When you start listening properly you realise it’s not the tempo which is slow, but the sense of wide open space and sheer relaxed ease of musicianship which gives an impression of stretched musical duration. In terms of overall timing Fellner is closer to Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra on DG in the Piano Concerto No.4, though the Russian team has a more outwardly dramatic approach.

That’s the thing with this recording. There is drama, but it is revealed in the remarkable content of the score, the composer’s imagination, rather than in the bravura of technical fireworks in the performance. While, as the ECM website tells us, these are “sensitive and meticulous” interpretations of these concertos, the musicians are almost self-effacing in their pursuit of the edifices of poetry which Beethoven has presented us. Yes, the impact in the final Vivace of the fourth concerto is full-blooded enough where the score demands. However both soloist and orchestra are always creating worlds of refinement – not in terms of boudoir fluff, but with a facility and understanding which seems to peel layers from accrued performance practice. This counteracts the dragging in of too much pianistic personality and/or defeats any tendency to diffuse the sheer ‘voice’ that Beethoven is most emphatically expressing.

The Piano Concerto No.5 is more of a show pony in this regard, and there are some gloriously sonorous statements in this performance. Once again however, the playing is never overblown, the dramatic moments always holding something in reserve, the inner detail never lost in a drive towards impressiveness and a superficial ‘wow’ factor. The winds and brass come through the orchestral texture, but always in a well weighted balance, and with only one or two fluty moments where the notes leak a little too far into the ends of the notes. The recording information by the way gives these as ‘concert’ recordings, but there are very few flecks of audience noise to indicate a live environment, and admittedly little of that edge-of-the-seat feel of danger which can sometimes create an extra degree of excitement. It’s annoying to have to keep contradicting oneself, but even where these musicians are clearly well within their comfort zones, live or not, this Piano Concerto No.5 is anything but dull. The drive here is not in a search for truth or a moment of inspiration, but in showing a truth which can be and has been found in works which are in and of themselves inspired. There is no rush of blood to any part of the body required in the haste to reveal this truth, after all, Beethoven has already mapped everything out with sensitive meticulousness, and we need only gaze on with awe. Unlike Kissin, Fellner and Nagano do not linger excessively over the central Adagio, but create a marvel in which the melodic lines and harmonic pace and rhythm move and undulate like something living and breathing. Again, this is a peeling away of the extraneous and the unnecessary, a proof that less can be more, without short changing us in terms of expressive content and that all important emotional journey which makes life worth living. The final Rondo dances rather than gallops. Another aspect of this recording which is almost tangible is that sense of Viennese cultural depths which root these recordings into worlds we can barely recapture in any other form of art these days.

The stunningly detailed but highly natural sound from ECM engineer Markus Heiland suits these performances like the proverbial painter’s palette, and interesting booklet notes from Paul Griffiths and a few facsimile pages of Beethoven’s autograph scores nicely top off an attractive looking package. I’ve long been a big fan of and still value old favourites like the Murray Perahia - Bernard Haitink - Concertgebouw recordings from the 1980s, and still very much enjoy Kissin and other notables in this repertoire. The Montréal forces under Nagano are a superb band, beautifully shaped when accompanying and with a tremendous full sound when in full cry, but in a very real sense the partnership between soloist and orchestra is that of equals. Till Fellner is a marvellous pianist, but is so closely linked to the performance as a whole that the impression left is not so much that of solo + accompanist, but of Beethoven’s remarkable message performed in as convincing a way as I’ve heard for a very long time.

Dominy Clements