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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1795) [29:41]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805/06) [34:01]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano/director)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
rec. November 2013, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
SONY CLASSICAL 88883 705482 [63:43]

Soloist Leif Ove Andsnes likes projects. His latest with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) is ‘The Beethoven Journey’ which commenced in 2012 with his release of the Piano Concertos 1 and 3 on Sony Classics. That year I was at the Semperoper for the Dresden Music Festival and heard them perform those Beethoven scores. I noticed that Andsnes pared down the orchestra to around forty-five. This latest offering, which is volume two, again has Andsnes choosing to direct from the piano.
Written in 1795, the Piano Concerto No. 2 was actually the first of the set of five concertos to be composed. It was premiered in Vienna with Beethoven as the soloist - the first time he had appeared in public in the city. Eminently suited to this repertoire Andsnes performs with compelling freshness and unerring sincerity. In the Adagio his playing feels especially sensitive to the nuances of Beethoven’s heartfelt writing.
The Piano Concerto No. 4 was introduced in 1807 at a private concert at patron Prince Lobkowitz’s palace in Leipzig with the composer as soloist. Many commentators regard the lyrical G major concerto as the finest of the five. Throughout I was struck by the clean articulation which felt so abundantly stylish and precise. In the final movement Rondo, Andsnes communicates unbridled joy and optimism.
Throughout the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra provides the soloist with sensitive accompaniment which could scarcely be bettered.
The sound is impressively clear with a satisfying balance between piano and the orchestra although sound picture was a touch lacking in depth. A minor grumble is the terribly uninspiring cover art. This also applies to the previous volume. Certainly neither would stand out on the record shelves and online catalogues.
My introduction to the Beethoven Piano Concertos was my collection of vinyl recordings from the 1970s performed by Beethoven specialist John Lill with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson. That was on the EMI ‘Classics For Pleasure’ label. The record catalogues overflow with accounts and there are many complete sets. I have heard plenty of stereo/digital recordings and in recent decades a number of mono recordings have resurfaced that have been digitally re-mastered. Of these I especially admire the 1952/56 set played by Solomon with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges/André Cluytens on Testament.
This Sony disc is however excellent and can rub shoulders with the finest in the catalogue. That said, they wouldn’t be my first choice. In truth my first choice of each concerto tends to shift so it is probably best to list the accounts that I currently play most often. In the Second Concerto for her supreme artistry it has to be Martha Argerich with the MCO under Claudio Abbado from Ferrara in 2000 on Deutsche Grammophon. In the Fourth Concerto I greatly admire an account that blends exhilaration with poetry from Wilhelm Kempff with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Ferdinand Leitner, recorded in Berlin in 1961 on Deutsche Grammophon. If I had to choose just one set of the five Concertos it would be the Maurizio Pollini box for his unfailing musicianship so splendidly accompanied by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado. That was recorded live in 1992/93 in Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon.
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Piano concerto 2 ~~ Piano concerto 4