RECORD OF THE MONTH
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra
Piano Concerto No.1, Op.15 (1795) [36:50]
Piano Concerto No.4, Op.58 (1806) [33:07]
Rondo, WoO 6 [10:14]
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.19 (1792-8) [28:44]
Piano Concerto No.5, Op.73 Emperor (1808-9) [37:30]
Beethoven and Mozart: An Obsession? A talk by Howard Shelley [12:40]
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.37 (1800-03) [34:50]
Piano Concerto, Op.61, arr. from Violin Concerto (1806-7) [43:19]
Choral Fantasia, Op. 80* (1808) [18:31]
Piano Concerto, WoO4, orch. Howard Shelley; premiere recording [24:59]
Triple Concerto, Op.56† (1804) [33:51]
Tasmin Little (violin)† Tim Hugh (cello)†
Chorus of Opera North*
Orchestra of Opera North/Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
rec. 6-8 September 2010, 20-21 June and 12-14 July 2011, Victoria Hall, Leeds Town Hall
CHANDOS CHAN10695(4) [4 CDs: 80:41 + 79:19 + 78:28 + 77:59]
Downloads from the Classical Shop
This release has already been examined and positively in one of Brian Wilson’s excellent Download Roundups, in this case for November 2011. The actual discs come in one of those appealingly chunky clamshell boxes, and my only complaint with the presentation is that the track listings are not given on the back of the cardboard sleeves for the discs so you have to refer to the booklet to find out what you are listening to. This booklet is very nicely produced, with extensive texts in English, German and French, and some nice photos of the artists, orchestra and choir.
The plush red colour of the box and contents reflects luxuriant sound from the recordings. The Leeds Town Hall acoustic is pretty huge but as my mate Graham of Leeds has testified, the sound engineers have tamed it pretty well. He is a horn player and knows the location from both sides of the divide, and I’ve seen the place as well and know what he means. The piano is close but not discomfortingly so, and while the orchestra does come off second best it does have just enough presence to make the balance sort-of believable. The piano sound is very full and rich, with plenty of satisfying bass to rouse the interest of audiophiles. I am told the superb Orchestra of Opera North and Howard Shelley’s working relationship was very good indeed, and it would have to be, with the soloist not only dealing with Beethoven’s sometimes punishing piano writing but also directing the orchestra from the keyboard – something we see more often with earlier classical composers such as Mozart but rarely with Beethoven. Howard Shelley has already cut his teeth as a conductor in Beethoven, with both the Piano Concerto No.4 and the Triple Concerto appearing under his baton with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on the Membran label in 2002.
As Brian Wilson pointed out, it is an invidious task trying to choose a ‘best’ set of Beethoven’s concertos. I appreciated Evgeny Kissin’s EMI cycle (see review) when it came my way, but can’t say I’ve been playing it a great deal since. Mikhail Pletnev is more exciting on Deutsche Grammophon (see review), but perhaps won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Classic versions abound, and many of them will always have their place no matter which newcomers arrive on the scene. It is not only the sheer completeness of Howard Shelley’s set which recommends it however. The earlier concertos are given stately nobility and a fragrant lightness of touch as well as their correct allocation of drama, the tempo opening the Piano Concerto No.1 being more measured than some but leaving room for a commanding cadenza. There is plenty of poetry in the central Largo, which somehow becomes an almost endless landscape without dragging in the least. The final Rondo is rousingly weighty, with a swing given to those off-beat accents which is quite infectious. CD 1 pairs this with the Concerto No.4, and once again Shelley gives the first movement plenty of time to develop, providing space and air to music which develops organically and inexorably like a living thing. I must say I really like this approach, which again is by no means really ‘slow’ as such – Shelley brings the first movement in at 18:36 to Kissin’s 20:55, but while he doesn’t pull the music around too much there is the sense of an experienced master at work: one who knows exactly the right way to pace the whole thing, allowing it to really sing without overdue haste or unnecessary wallowing. The remarkable Andante con moto is done very nicely in this recording, with its declamatory, almost hectoring orchestral gestures and the soloist engaged in a prayer of his own. The expectancy which opens the last movement delivers in terms of impact and excitement later on. The Rondo WoO 6 is thought to be the original finale to the Piano Concerto No.2, but programming your player to try it as an alternative isn’t an option as it appears at the end of the 1st and 4th concertos. One of the features of this programme is the elevation of neglected or ‘lesser’ works to equal status with the usual canon of the five piano concertos, and this Rondo turns out to be something a bit special, with stereotypical classical gestures mixed in with some remarkably ebullient rhetoric and plenty of exploratory diversions from the expected. This is something of a ‘work in progress’, and by no means one of Beethoven’s best creations, but remains a fascinating and quirky one for all that.
CD 2 pairs the Piano Concerto No.2 – the first composed of the numbered concertos, with the last, the Piano Concerto No. 5. As Brian Wilson has already stated, there aren’t any revelations as such in these performances, but there is a clarity in their intent and delivery which has its own tendency to lift up stones and shine lights on aspects of the music with integrity and a sense of truth which is inescapable. The youthful Piano Concerto No. 2 sounds just like that, scampering up and down in the opening Allegro con brio and the final Rondo with kittenish energy, and sighing with unrequited love in the central Adagio. The ‘Emperor’ concerto is a high point in any such cycle, and so it is here. Where the pairing of the Concertos 1 & 4 on CD 1 to a certain extent pointed out familial relationships and similarities, hearing the 5th after the Concerto No. 2 shows up contrast. Beethoven’s earlier experiment with convention is set against the defining of a new language of defiance and the treatment of the piano concerto as a quasi-symphonic utterance rather than mainly a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Shelley shows us the equality of the soloist and the rest of the instruments, how they are both united and pitted against each other in conflict and confluence. The piano has to climb a high wall in the opening Allegro, but while the massed orchestra offers both resistance and comfortable footholds, you always have the feeling that there is sunshine on the soloist’s back. The hard-won Adagio un poco mosso is a verdant oasis, from which emerges a mighty Rondo, Shelley’s hyper-piano now leading the way for the orchestra which sounds a bit meek by comparison at the outset. It’s all pretty convincing though, and I love the differences in texture given to the various tonalities traversed, even though it loses steam a little here and there. This second CD ends with a short talk given by Howard Shelley, which has some fascinating insights and is illustrated with musical snippets which build on Beethoven’s surprisingly close association with Mozart, and repays listening to more than once.
Howard Shelley points out the similarities of the minor-key Piano Concerto No.3 with Mozart’s Concerto KV 491, also in C minor, and this might contribute to a Mozartean ‘vibe’ in the performance, which has a very up-beat feel from the outset. Shelley gives plenty of weight to the dramas being played out within the score, but maintains a luminosity of touch which is very appealing. The atmosphere in the central Largo is subdued, but with a magical aura which makes it feel like the centre of a very special universe, and its nature emphasised by the joyous feel of both outer movements. This is followed by the Piano Concerto Op.61, arranged by Beethoven from the Violin Concerto and by no means unknown in collections of the piano concertos. Shelley again gives the work plenty of space and largesse, bringing out all of the melodic lines with graceful shapeliness. The piano version of this concerto is never really going to rival the potential it has in the hands of the best violinists, but this is as convincing a version as I can recall hearing, with a central Larghetto in which time seems to stand still.
With the final disc of the set we have some less familiar treats. As I mentioned before, the less easily categorised works are to a certain extent the stars of this collection, being most certainly given equality of status and attention to detail in terms of performance. The Choral Fantasia Op.80 was written as the finale for a grand benefit concert in 1808, and Beethoven pulls out all the stops in a tremendous if overly-long build-up through exploratory solo passages, diverse variations, and that remarkable choral climax which is a pre-echo to the 9th Symphony. This performance isn’t as granite-tough in the beginning as Barenboim in his classic recording with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI, but is juicier at heart and a delight from beginning to end, and with the addition of the fine Opera North singers as the ultimate resource to top the whole thing off. The vocal soloists’ entry after 14:45 worth of instrumental material is indeed an electrifying effect, and this is a recording which gives us a new reference for this piece. The Piano Concerto WoO4 receives its première recording here, having been reconstructed from a piano part and a few instrumental cues. This piece would have been written when Beethoven was about 12 or 13 years of age, and certainly shows the burgeoning of a great deal of talent. The piano part is in fact quite technically demanding, with the orchestra often echoing or adding little brushes of colour to the busy solo. As an early work there are no expectations other than of prodigious potential, and other than finding that the finale is a rondo exactly as with all the other concertos, there are few if any moments where the name Beethoven would spring to mind on a blind hearing. This is however very much not Mozart or any other individually recognisable musical forebear, and therefore has plenty of oddity to keep the listener engaged. Beethoven’s eclectic gathering and filtering of the influences he would have encountered by his early teens result in a sparkly and not unattractive work, though I doubt it is anything which will become common currency in concert programmes.
We round off this complete experience with the Triple Concerto which, while not entirely the Tripe Concerto the famous typo would have us imagine, is another of Beethoven’s works which is shorter on moments of genius than the best of the other concertos, and with fees due to three soloists rather than one can be something of an expensive option for concert organisers. The Chandos engineers reward us with a rich sound for the three soloists, and Tim Hugh’s cello is particularly expressive and superlatively gorgeous in the opening of the central Largo. Hugh has appeared in this piece before in a highly regarded recording on the LSO Live label conducted by Bernard Haitink. This Chandos recording beats the LSO one for sound, with the dry Barbican acoustic like a dead hand on so many recordings which emerge from that source, and to my mind this recording is the equal of any other I could name, including most of the old favourites which have already been around for years gathering legendary status like moss on a non-rolling stone. There is a certain amount of ‘period’ non-use of vibrato at certain points, which I feel is a nice touch – relaxing certain passages in contrast to the tensions and dramas in others. This is a genuinely red-blooded performance as well as a particularly sensitive one, and the wide separation of the string soloists helps with clarity and the ability to follow the musical arguments. Both Little and Hugh have a light touch most of the time, which means the curse of ‘scrubbing’ is lifted in the outer movements. They match each other well throughout, creating a nice chamber-music feel to the trio despite its setting in front of a substantial orchestra and a big acoustic.
This is the kind of set which comes along once every few years, generating a new point of focus in your collection and supplanting numerous versions of older items. While not detached or boringly predictable, Howard Shelley’s approach is arguably cooler than some, and there will always be a place for all of those great recordings of individual concertos we can still find available. Of the recent competitors, Paul Lewis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the Harmonia Mundi label is a very strong contender, but even in this case the sense or warm humanity and wit Howard Shelley brings to the music trumps even this. For my own experience this has become a box with its own little centre of gravity, pulling me back on a regular basis to hear that generous sound and all that marvellous musicianship, as well as some of Beethoven’s best music. As a one-stop collection it is unbeatable, and we are truly fortunate that it also happens to be a superlative choice with no also-ran ‘fillers’ and no real weak points in just about every aspect of its production.
Superlative choice in every regard.