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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Five Piano Concertos and Triple Concerto

Mari Kodama (piano); Kolja Blacher (violin), Johannes Moser (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
rec. 2006-13
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300597BC [3 CDs: 67:40 + 70:07 + 73:18]

Japanese pianist Mari Kodama is not too well known in the UK, a country in which she rarely plays. Her performance schedule, going back to 2006, shows that she concentrates her playing in Europe with occasional tours to the USA as well as Japan.

Earlier this year Kodama released a 9 CD box set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas on Pentatone Classics, a Beethoven journey that took a decade to record from 2003 to 2013. Now for Berlin Classics, Kodama continues her Beethoven odyssey with this set of the five Piano Concertos and the Triple Concerto accompanied by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO Berlin) under the baton of Kodama’s husband Kent Nagano. I saw Nagano conduct the DSO Berlin at the 2013 Dresden Music Festival but I am more familiar with his conducting primarily from his tenure as principal conductor of the Hallé in Manchester between 1992 and 1999.

There is an enduring stream of recordings of complete sets of the much loved Beethoven piano concertos. Recording these works, which brim with challenges, seems to be a rite of a passage. In her booklet essay to this set Kodama talks about Beethoven’s desire to extricate himself from the shackles of music tradition. In addition Kodama and her husband explain how they try to bring alternative colours to Beethoven’s often dour image using more vivid tonal shading. They also attempt to underscore the humour found in the music.

The existence of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in E flat major numbered WoO 4 is little known. It was written in 1784 by the fourteen year old composer and sounds rather derivative of Johann Christian Bach. The full score has not survived and it exists as a revised piano part.

Even though sporting a later opus number the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 in fact predates the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 by two to three years. The actual composition dates of Beethoven’s scores given in notes and essays should be treated as approximate.

Composed circa 1795/98 the Piano Concerto No.1 feels much more mature than its predecessor and is beaten in length only by his Piano Concerto No. 5Emperor’. Bearing a dedication to his pupil Countess Anna Louise Barbara ‘Babette’ Keglevics this work was premièred in 1798 in Prague with Beethoven at the piano. In this performance Kodama highlights the near carnivalesque character of the score’s outer movements. She plays the central Largo with unerring tenderness.

Written in 1795 the Piano Concerto No. 2 was the twenty-four year old Beethoven’s first major orchestral work. Beethoven was the soloist at the premiere which took place in Vienna; it was the first time he had appeared in public in that city. Three years later the concerto with rewritten parts was introduced in Prague but it’s the original 1795 score that is heard today. Playing with freshness and unfailing sincerity Kodama seems conspicuously well suited to this repertoire. Dependable and thoughtful, she finds a near spiritual quality in the heartfelt central Adagio.

With a completion date of 1803 the Piano Concerto No. 3 is a work that sees Beethoven pushing the boundaries of piano writing. The composer himself appeared as soloist for its introduction in Vienna in 1803. This must have been a remarkable all-Beethoven concert; it also included premières of both the Symphony No. 2 and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. Kodama’s playing is especially sensitive. Notable is the calm and reflective mood given to the Largo. The spirited playing of the Finale: Rondo has real gravitas.

Written in 1805/06 Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 was completed just prior to the start of the Violin Concerto. It was Beethoven as soloist who introduced the work in 1807 at a private concert in the Leipzig palace of his patron Prince Lobkowitz. The public première was not given until 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna with Beethoven again as soloist. Responsive yet instinctive, Kodama demonstrates that she is a player of impeccable taste and great concentration. In this absorbing performance she handles Beethoven’s rhythmic diversity without resorting to unnecessary haste. She is boldly compelling as well as radiating expressive warmth in the Finale: Rondo with its markedly percussive writing.

Commenced in 1809 shortly after completing the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 Beethoven wrote the Piano Concerto No. 5 during a terribly testing period. Napoleon’s armies had reached the gates of Vienna which was under siege, suffering weighty artillery bombardment. It seems that Beethoven sought shelter in the cellars. His life as a virtuoso pianist had ended owing to his profound deafness so it was soloist Friedrich Schneider who premièred the work in 1811 at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig. Evidently a publisher first named the work Emperor - a nickname that has stuck. Little of Beethoven’s torment is in evidence. With writing of unerring boldness and grandeur this is one of his most heroic works. Kodama seems undaunted by the challenges of this defiant and magnificent score. Conspicuous is the energy that Kodama commits to the massive opening movement whilst maintaining poised control. I relished the inspiring poetry she applies to the Adagio.

Also included here is the Triple Concerto for piano, violin and cello in C major, Op. 56. Beethoven wrote this in the winter of 1803/04. This was a period of great productivity for Beethoven that included finishing the Eroica Symphony, writing the Waldstein Piano Sonata and commencing the opera Fidelio.

Beethoven wrote the Triple Concerto for his young royal pupil Archduke Rudolf, a fine pianist who required the work for his private orchestra. It is not known if Rudolf actually played the work which received its public première some years later in 1808 in Vienna. Joining Kodama here are violinist Kolja Blacher and cellist Johannes Moser, excellent musicians who contribute to this well balanced team performance. Outstanding in the upbeat finale with its rhythmic Polonaise is the veracious quality of the playing - a sense of mutual awareness balanced with spontaneity.

These are certainly impressive performances, full of integrity, poise, expressivity and sometimes poetry. That said, despite the adept surface precision, I was left wanting something that explores deeper beneath the score. Greater emotional depth, which is there in the scores, is demonstrated for example in the recordings from Pollini/Abbado on DG; Perahia/Haitink on Sony; Gilels/Szell/Ludwig on EMI, Kempff/Leitner on DG and Solomon/Philharmonia on Testament. Great praise is due to the DSO Berlin under Kent Nagano who provide exemplary support.

The sound engineers have used three different Berlin locations and although acceptable the sound quality is too closely recorded for my taste especially the forwardly positioned piano. There is some blurring around the edges as the forte passages struggle to fit into the sound-picture.

The record catalogues overflow with versions of the Beethoven piano concertos. There are a substantial number of complete sets and in recent years a raft of mono recordings have resurfaced that have been digitally re-mastered. My introduction to the Beethoven Piano Concertos among my collection of vinyl recordings from the 1970s was performed by Beethoven specialist John Lill with the Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Alexander Gibson on the EMI Classics For Pleasure label. The Lill cycle is available on a three disc set from Classics for Pleasure. I haven’t replaced Lill’s CFP vinyl records on compact disc so I cannot judge the success of the migration to silver disc.

In truth there are a number of complete sets of Beethoven’s five piano concertos that I am eminently satisfied with. However my principal choice lies with Maurizio Pollini for his unerring musicianship. He is superbly accompanied by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado. Pollini was recorded live in 1992/93 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. Another excellent set is played by Murray Perahia with the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink recorded in 1983/86 in Amsterdam on Sony Classical. Perahia provides exciting and deeply expressive playing with a lightness of touch that delights the ear and the engineers supply warm and pleasingly clear sonics.

Michael Cookson

Full Contents List
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795/98) [37:38]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1795) [29:59]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1803) [35:22]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805/06) [34:28]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 Emperor (1809/11) [38:38]
Triple Concerto for piano violin and cello in C major, Op. 56 (1803) [34:32]

rec. 23-24 June 2006, Telex Studio, Berlin, Germany (Concerto 1, 2); 9-10 November 2006, Siemensvilla, Berlin, Germany (Concerto 3); 9-10 February 2010, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany (Triple Concerto); 5-6 March 2013, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany (Concerto 4); 8-9 March 2013, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany (Concerto 5)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300597BC [3 CDs: 67:40 + 70:07 + 73:18]