Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra
CD 1 [80:41]
Piano Concerto No.1, Op.15 (1795) [36:50]
Piano Concerto No.4, Op.58 (1806) [33:07]
Rondo, WoO 6 [10:14]
CD 2 [79:19]
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]
CD 3 [78:28]
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.37 (1800-03) [34:50]
Piano Concerto, Op.61, arr. from Violin Concerto (1806-7) [43:19]
CD 4 [77:59]
Choral Fantasia, Op. 80* (1808) [18:31]
Piano Concerto, WoO4, orch. Howard Shelley; premiere recording [24:59]
Triple Concerto, Op.56† (1804) [33:51]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Tasmin Little (violin)† Tim Hugh (cello)†
Chorus of Opera North*
Orchestra of Opera North/Howard Shelley
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]
See also review by Dominy Clements
I’ve come rather late to this party, but it still seems appropriate to add my voice to the paeans of praise that have been heaped upon this excellent Beethoven release. Shelley’s communication with the orchestra is very much one of first-among-equals, seen most evidently in his dual role as soloist and conductor. It reaps glorious dividends throughout this music. It is helped by lovely recorded sound, bloomy and full with just the right amount of echo to evoke the acoustic of the venue; here the piano comes across as a collaborator, not as a dictator.
The concertos themselves are given performances that could look any others in the face and benefit from the comparison. The first movement of No. 1 is bustling and majestic, before a sublime restfulness settles over the slow movement. There is a beautiful thoughtfulness to Shelley’s playing here, as if he is exploring the music’s possibilities for the very first time, and there is a wonderful swing to the finale, tempered by an almost tentative take on the opening of the main theme. No. 2 is lithe and supple with a lovely sense of interplay between the piano and orchestra and a proper bounce to the finale. Shelley also manages to make the slow movement sound strangely beautiful, evoking Beethoven’s maturity in a way few performers manage. The opening of No. 3 has a crisp, almost business-like air that lends it an extra air of menace, something offset entirely by the Elysian gentleness of the Largo, and the finale is vigorous while remaining playful – the final blaze of C major is a real treat. Shelley also has a wonderfully communicative way with the Fourth; throughout the first movement he and the orchestra seem to tease the meaning out of the music, drawing it gently out of itself with an almost tentative air that suits the music brilliantly. That sense of drawing out comes into its own in the slow movement as the piano gently appeases the strings with some lovely solo work, especially around the two-minute mark. This leads to an ebullient finale that just about overflows with energy and provides a remarkably satisfying conclusion to the concerto as a whole. The Emperor bristles with majesty, its first movement self-consciously revelling in the splendour of the music and loving every minute of it. The broad tempo for the slow movement gives the music plenty of room to expand, and a palpable sense of climax is reached when the piano finally arrives at its own treatment of the main theme, about four minutes in. The finale is rambunctious and brims with life; the vigour of the timpani offsets the playing of the rest of the orchestra brilliantly and creates a surge of energy which makes me want to sample this movement again and again.
One of the real points of interest here is the youthful E flat concerto which the 13-year old composer wrote in his Bonn years. Only its piano part survives in manuscript form, and the orchestral part has been reconstructed, albeit conjecturally, by Shelley. But he does a wonderful job, recreating a work of Haydnesque vitality in its first movement and wonderful energy in its finale. Shelley’s finest orchestral touches come in the wonderful woodwind lines that accompany the soloist in the slow movement, a lovely idea that is entirely in the spirit of what the young Beethoven may have been thinking.
Shelley also gives a turn to the piano version of the violin concerto. No matter how many times you hear it, you’ll always be taken aback when the piano enters for the first time. Even though the composer made the transcription himself, it’s unlikely to replace the original in anyone’s affections. The main reason is that the piano doesn’t have the same lyrical arc as the violin in some of the main melodies. This occurs most damagingly when the beautiful alternative theme of the slow movement is first revealed, about 4½ minutes into the Larghetto. It sounds earthbound here and lacks the songful quality that the best violinists will bring to it. Still, it had the benefit of making me focus all the more on the orchestra whose playing here, as elsewhere in the set, is superb, full of understanding and an opera orchestra’s ability to listen.
Even the troublesome Choral Fantasy comes up as a work worth getting to know better. The main theme grows organically out of the opening flourish before being bandied around and developed extensively. The entry of the chorus feels like a genuine climax rather than something tacked on, though the singing is a touch on the raw side at times. More than ever, this feels like Beethoven is engaging in a dress rehearsal for the finale of the Ninth Symphony.
The Triple Concerto, a favourite work of mine, I found especially enjoyable. There is a wonderful sense of collective engagement in this performance. Of course, that’s the way it should always be, but we’ve all heard star performances where the individuals seem more important than the whole. Not so here: this is a performance where each performer is subservient to the demands of the score. There are plenty of moments where one player has to stand out and take the limelight, but just as delightful are the moments where the other two step back and accompany faithfully, adding their voices as support rather than as scene-stealers. Little and Hugh prove to be excellent collaborators here, Hugh’s cello playing coming across as particularly stylish. The tempi are on the fast side for the first movement, but they allow the majesty of the music to breathe and flourish, and the orchestral climaxes are every bit as thrilling as elsewhere. The beautiful slow movement has a rapt, intense quality to it, while the finale feels like a conversation between friends.
This performance sets the seal on an outstanding collection, worthy to stand up to any equivalent set that has appeared in recent years. Paul Lewis and Jir(í Be(lohlávek make the most interesting comparison for having been released so recently, and their performances are every bit as stylish, but they don’t provide the extra works and their price is comparable to this set, which consists of four good value CDs which have been crammed full of excellent music in great performances. It’s this one that I’ll be coming back to again and again, to rekindle a love of music well known and to open my eyes anew to the genius that Beethoven displays on every page.
Rekindle a love of music well known and opens my eyes anew to the genius that Beethoven displays on every page.