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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [36:16]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 [35:01]
Maria Joćo Pires (piano)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 9-11 October 2013, Berwaldhalle, Stockholm
ONYX 4125 [71:30]

What better way to christen a new musical working relationship than with this wonderful disc of two Beethoven piano concertos played by the Portuguese pianist Maria Joćo Pires. She has recently signed a new contract with Onyx, having previously recorded for both Erato and DG. It may come as a surprise to many that this is the first time she has taken a Beethoven concerto into the studio although she has recorded for DG several of the piano sonatas and the complete sonatas for violin and piano with Augustin Dumay who has also signed up with Onyx. There are plans afoot for Pires and Dumay to record Mozart violin sonatas, and even the enticing prospect of a Beethoven Triple Concerto with Dumay and Antonio Meneses. I have always been impressed with the exceptional high quality of Pires’ recordings and this release lives up fully to my expectations. I was fortunate to hear the pianist on one occasion, several years ago at a late night Prom, when she played Chopin Nocturnes. My enthusiasm for her artistry has never waned.

What immediately impresses me is the orchestral detail that Harding elicits from the players, some of which I hadn’t been aware of before. The timpani especially makes its presence felt throughout. I love the way, in the coda of the Op. 37 finale, it is used to great effect to emphasize the downbeats, giving shape, rhythmic thrust and direction. The strings are rich and warm, and the woodwinds shine forth with crystalline purity, conferring a diaphanous halo of colour to the proceedings.

Beethoven took as his source of inspiration Mozart’s Piano Concerto K491 when composing his Third Piano Concerto, even adopting the same key signature of C minor. Ten years separate the two. Mozart composed his in the winter of 1785-86 and premiered it himself in the April 1786. Beethoven began sketches for his concerto in 1796, but the main bulk of composition was done in 1800, with completion in 1804. Both works are similar in that they contrast introspection with unalloyed passion. The performance here rises to the challenge and delivers a reading of grandeur mixed with drama and lyricism. Pires’ tempi, dynamics and phrasing all add up to a sensitively sculpted realization. In the slow movement, she brings to the score a wealth of poetic insights, and the beauty of tone she achieves is breath-taking.

Similarly in the Fourth Concerto, composed 1805-6, Pires’ instinctive musicianship is to the fore and her playing is characterized by poise and profundity. There is great nobility in the opening movement, underpinned by spontaneity and freshness. I felt as though the music was being recreated on the wing. There’s a sense of ominous portent about the brief slow movement leading logically into the Rondo Finale where the tension is assuaged with jollity, energy and vigour.

This release is dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, who died earlier in the year and with whom Pires made several Mozart concerto recordings. The pianist provides an ‘Artist's Note’ in which she shares her thoughts and insights on ‘interpretation’ and the delicate balance between creation and recreation. With Pires it is not about self-promotion and imposing her personality on the music yet, whilst she can appear restrained, her playing is never understated.

Onyx’s engineers have achieved a superb natural sound-picture with an ideal balance between piano and orchestra. This recording is a resounding success and I have no hesitation in giving it my wholehearted endorsement. Is this the start of a prospective cycle? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~~ Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Concerto 3 ~~ Concerto 4