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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN(1770-1827)
Complete Piano Concertos
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15 [36:02]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B. Op.19 [28:38]
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37 [35:03]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58 [34:15]
Piano Concerto No.5 in G flat, Op.73 (Emperor) [37:11]
Rudolf Buchbinder (piano and conductor)
Wiener Philharmoniker
rec. live. Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, May 2011.
SONY CLASSICAL 88883745212 [3 CDs: 64:40 + 69:18 + 37:11]

When it comes to Beethoven, the Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder is in familiar territory. He has already recorded two complete cycles of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas - the latest one two years ago - which are very fine indeed. The concertos, likewise, have been visited many times before; an elusive complete set on Preiser with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was released in 2007. The performances here were recorded over two days in live concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in the wonderful, rich acoustic of the Musikverein in May 2011. Filmed versions of these events were released on Blu-Ray and DVD in 2012, and have already been reviewed on MusicWeb International.
For these performances, Buchbinder, now one of the elder statesmen of the keyboard, has opted to dispense with a conductor and play and direct the concertos himself. Beethoven similarly took on the role of both conductor and pianist at the first performances. For all concerned in these live readings, it is a ‘high-wire act without a safety net’ as the notes take pains to explain. Buchbinder and the VPO have already played some Mozart concertos together in similar fashion.
Listening to the cycle I am immediately struck by the pianist’s approach. This is not prettified or porcelain Beethoven, but granite-like in its conception. The performances show Beethoven moving away from Mozart, breaking new ground and employing more symphonic and architectural structures. What is also striking is that this is a partnership of equals, a true dialogue between piano and orchestra. Buchbinder’s impeccable technique allows him to realize his vision. The salient qualities of adventure and struggle permeate the music.
Outer movements are energized and some may find those of, say, the first concerto a little too hard-driven. The opening movement of the Emperor is magisterial in its conception, the third movement being bright and energetic. The third movements of the first and second concertos are imbued with wit, humour and joie de vivre, underpinned by an innate sense of rhythmic dynamism. Second movements are never too self-conscious, but lyrical and sensitively sculpted, Buchbinder striving for beauty of tone with exquisite voicing of chords. Tonal colour is achieved with judicious use of pedal. The slow movements are not overly romantic or wallowing, but emotions are contained and suitably reined in. The fourth concerto, which has always been my favorite, is a probing interpretation. The players really get under the skin of the music and tease out its sublime, gentle and heartfelt elements. The third concerto, likewise, is strongly argued.
The Vienna Philharmonic, who have this music in their blood, respond well to Buchbinder’s patrician insights and inspiring direction. He elicits refined and polished playing and the sound of the orchestra is enhanced by the glorious acoustic of the Musikverein. The performances hold your attention throughout. The engineers have achieved an ideal balance between piano and orchestra. The piano sound is bright, rounded and full. Tempi and dynamics are rightly judged. Audience applause is retained, but extraneous bronchial contributions seem conspicuously absent. For me, these live recordings stand up there with the greats, which include Brendel/Rattle, Brendel/Levine, both Pollini cycles, Gilels/Szell and Kempff/Van Kempen. These are five star performances, which will keep you on the edge of your seats.
Stephen Greenbank

Previous review (Blu-ray): Geoffrey Molyneux

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concertos