Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15 [36:10]
Friedrich KUHLAU (1786-1832)
Piano Concerto in C, Op.7 (1810) [31:18]
Marianna Shirinyan (piano)
Copenhagen Philharmonic/Michael Francis (Beethoven), Rolf Gupta (Kuhlau)
rec. Concert Hall of the Academy, Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2010 (Kuhlau) and October 2011 (Beethoven).
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC 100025 [67:28]

On my journey through life I’ve explored many highways and byways in music. I have been thrilled and surprised by so many wonderful discoveries but just as a ship eventually returns to harbour I’ve found that I always eventually return to Beethoven. However many times I set off to discover more I always know I shall be returning to him at some point. Beethoven is for me a kind of anchor and a benchmark against which I subconsciously appraise all other music. I’m sure I’m not alone in this though doubtless for others it will be a different name but I’m willing to bet that if not the majority then a high proportion will have the same musical anchor. It is said that the exceptions prove the rule and with very few I feel that Beethoven did everything right. His music is perfect in every way. There are never too many notes and never too few; if true genius exists then Beethoven was one.
After some lessons with his father Johann, Beethoven studied with Gottlob Neefe, who wrote in The Magazine of Music, following Beethoven’s first published work in 1783, “if he continues like this, he will be, without a doubt, the new Mozart”. Now there was a prophecy that held good!
Beethoven’s piano concerto no.1 was not the first he wrote but ended up being catalogued that way. It opens with an orchestral introduction that is at once charming and grand with more than a hint of the military. The piano joins in only after two and a half minutes picking up the theme from the orchestra. While there is a main theme there are several others that are subordinate to it, all with Beethoven’s incredible facility for innovation and the writing of brilliant tunes. It is not surprising therefore to read in the notes that soloist Marianna Shirinyan found it far more difficult to produce her own cadenza faced with Beethoven’s own suggestions for them while it was far easier in Kuhlau’s concerto to do the same. The slow movement’s core is an absolutely gorgeous theme with more than a hint of sadness and regret and is one that no one could ever tire of hearing. After such a reflective movement the final Rondo: Allegro scherzando takes one by surprise as it fairly leaps in with a jolly tune which is soon treated to a number of improvisations by both soloist and orchestra. The piano becomes almost jazzy around 2 minutes 40 in with a particularly humorous diversion. The whole movement is witty and fun and when the end comes it is the satisfying conclusion you expect from such a master of the genre.
Kuhlau became a friend and drinking companion of Beethoven’s a couple of years before Beethoven died. By that time Beethoven was stone deaf and Kuhlau was blind in one eye. One can imagine them in a pub where according to Beethoven’s notebooks they joked and wrote witty songs and discussed musical life. In Kuhlau’s piano concerto, his op.7 and also written in the key of C, you can immediately hear to what extent he was influenced by Beethoven’s first concerto with a main theme in the opening movement which is surprisingly similar to it, in fact almost a mirror image. While the concerto is charming and delightful in its own right it is not on the same plain as Beethoven’s whose creative ability and original thinking placed him in as much of a different league to his contemporaries as Mozart compared with Salieri and others active in his time. If people only ever drank blended whisky and enjoyed it they’d be perfectly happy with it. If they ever tried a good single malt then they’d never view the blended version in the same way again. That’s the same with any piano concertos written by others when Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were at work. That said there’s plenty to admire and the slow movement Adagio is very affecting with some lovely and quite touchingly sad moments. The final Rondo: Allegro is also a well constructed movement with which to end a work. Kuhlau had every reason to be satisfied with it but must have been aware that it would inevitably be compared with Beethoven’s work. Long after Beethoven died other composers were mindful of the reputation Beethoven left behind him. It is well documented as to how Brahms always felt intimidated by the pressure Beethoven’s genius put upon his creative endeavours. Nevertheless Kuhlau’s piano concerto is pleasant enough offering plenty to enjoy. Having both concertos in C on the same disc makes for an interesting juxtaposition.
The soloist Marianna Shirinyan, born in Armenia, living and working in Denmark, is a fine pianist. This was proved in 2006 when she won no fewer than five prizes at the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. Her debut album of chamber music by Chopin with cellist Danish Andreas Brantelid and Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang won the Danish “Grammy” (P2 Prisen). On this disc she delivers fine performances and receives great support from the Copenhagen Phil. I hadn’t heard the Kuhlau before and am pleased to have the chance to get to know it. This disc is a clever coupling and despite the obvious comparisons is worth having for at least that reason.
Steve Arloff 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Concerto 1

A clever coupling and worth having for at least that reason.