I may be wrong but I think this may be the first recording of Beethoven piano concertos that Maria João Pires has made in her distinguished career. If so, that’s rather surprising. This coupling, the first release under a new arrangement between the pianist and Onyx Classics is most welcome. The disc is dedicated to the memory of the late Claudio Abbado.
Pires and Harding give a reading of the Third Concerto that I find very persuasive. In the first movement Harding shapes the introduction very well. As will be the case with the Fourth Concerto the woodwind are quite prominent in the blend – though not excessively so. The strings are restrained in their use of vibrato – the sound is lean but by no means undernourished – and in a further recognition of historical practice the timpanist uses hard-ish sticks. If I have a reservation about the orchestral blend and overall contribution it’s a minor one, namely that the timpanist is a bit prominent in some of the loud tuttis. When Pires begins to play she offers lithe and graceful pianism and shows a fine sense of style, as one would expect from this artist. Her playing is consistently fluent and the articulation is crisp and clean. Throughout Harding and his orchestra give her excellent, alert support. Beethoven’s cadenza is used. The Largo is slow and pensive. It’s played most poetically by Pires and the accompaniment is never less than sensitive. The finale is energetic and spirited and I enjoyed this concerto performance very much.
The Fourth Concerto is not quite so successful. The trouble lies partly in the pacing of the first movement: it felt just too steady to me. In addition I sensed that in the long orchestral preface especially Harding doesn’t invest the music with sufficient dynamism; in part that’s because I don’t think he makes enough of Beethoven’s accents. For comparisons I used two longstanding favourite versions: Emil Gilels’ aristocratic 1957 recording with the Philharmonia and Leopold Ludwig, which I have in a Testament transfer though it is also available from other sources (review
); and the equally fine CBS/Sony version from the mid-1980s (MK 39814) in which Murray Perahia is partnered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink, a recording which I fear may no longer be available. In both cases the tempo is only very marginally swifter than Harding’s but the music seems to flow with more purpose and possesses greater vitality without ever compromising the lyrical quality of the writing. The margin may be fine but it’s telling though other listeners may like Harding’s response to the music. I just think that there’s a touch too much “moderato” in this Allegro moderato
Having expressed that reservation I should say that there’s still plenty to enjoy and admire in the performance of this marvellous movement. Once again Pires plays very well indeed and she’s clearly thought deeply about the music. She plays Beethoven’s first cadenza – the longer, more elaborate one – and she delivers it exceptionally well. The account of the short slow movement is a fine one. Pires pays with great subtlety and poise and subdues Harding’s appropriately trenchant orchestra. The finale evidences good energy levels. As with the first movement I had a nagging feeling that the tempo was just the tiniest fraction too steady but I enjoyed the performance nonetheless.
The performances have been recorded in very good, clear sound. The documentation is somewhat sparse: there is a short, philosophical reflection by the pianist but no notes about the music itself which isn’t a great deal of help to any relative newcomer to these concertos who makes a speculative purchase.
I don’t know if this is planned as the start of a Beethoven concerto cycle from these artists but if it is I shall look forward to further instalments for this disc contains many pleasures and will certainly be warmly welcomed by the many admirers of Maria João Pires.
Masterwork Index: Concerto
~~ Concerto 4