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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) The Complete Piano Concertos Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 [36:52] Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 [28:03] Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [34:40] Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 [32:31] Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 'Emperor' [37:44]
Hannes Minnaar (piano)
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 2014-16, Muziekcentrum, Enschede, The Netherlands CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72763 [3 SACDs: 169:58]
Hannes Minnaar first came to my attention through an excellent disc of a very demanding programme of Rachmaninov and Ravel. Here he is heard on even more competitive repertoire, in a Beethoven concerto cycle no less. Can the young Dutchman have something to say in terrain that so many great pianists have traversed before him, some of them more than once, like Kempff, Brendel, and Barenboim (on CD and DVD)? Well these are inexhaustible masterworks in the genre, so almost every artist will want to make this journey at some stage. Furthermore, most of these pieces are a young man’s music, and have a place for fresh youthful energy and a sense of discovery - which is what we get here.
The booklet notes tell us that the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra uses period brass instruments in classical repertoire, and you certainly notice their authentic ‘rattle’ that later instrumental developments seemed to banish. We also learn that the tuner of Steinway Centre Netherlands “applied his expertise to prepare the historical tuning of the instrument”. But that instrument is a modern piano, with all that we expect in timbre and character of course, not a period one. Perhaps there is slightly less brilliance (or clangour) than we sometimes get from a Steinway, but it suits the performances and matches well with the orchestra. The SACD sound is very good indeed, if you don’t mind the fact that we are clearly in a large acoustic space, with greater than usual reverberation. This does not occlude detail too much, but it does add a sense of scale and spectacle whenever the very present trumpets and drums are contributing to a big tutti.
The first two concertos are especially persuasive from Minnaar, who seems to delight in their invention. His first entry in No.2 demonstrates his sparkling articulation, his ability to ‘lift’ a phrase without exaggeration. His playing is committed and alert throughout this superb curtain raiser to Beethoven’s wonderful concertos. There is little vibrato from the strings, as we might expect with a modern Beethoven disc, but still good colour and flexibility. With the additional trumpets and drums added for No.1 we really notice the period character of the orchestral playing from the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, and the very attentive accompaniment from Jan Willem de Vriend.
No.3 in C minor has all the same qualities. Tempi are sensible, even traditional, except that the rondo is a bit more of a sedate jogtrot than one sometimes hears. This is by no means to its disadvantage, since it has a certain emotional logic after the profound explorations of the great central largo. With the last two concertos, where a certain interpretative authority is required, Minnaar does not disappoint. He and de Vriend have the full measure of this music’s stature, but do not change their fundamentally straightforward approach. The Fourth Concerto has all the expansive lyricism one could wish for in the first movement, and quite sufficient drama in the central one – the especially gruff lower strings make them a formidable antagonist. The Fifth Concerto sounds in this account essentially a happy work, but no less profound for that, and we are treated to an exhilarating performance. It has little imperial grandstanding – I was surprised the box even acknowledged the title of Emperor (which it does somewhat apologetically in brackets and single quotation marks). From the opening tutti to the coda the first movement commands the attention, and the tempo for the slow movement is ideal, as is Minnaar’s gently flowing and unselfconscious playing – on this evidence he is the least self-regarding of artists.
Yet this really is a soloist who can make you listen afresh even in such familiar music. The youthful brio, the beautifully even runs, and the birdlike trills all give pleasure at various moments in the cycle. Moreover soloist and conductor seem at one throughout this set. But then Hannes Minnaar sounds as much collaborator as star soloist. He is after all an established chamber musician who has recorded surveys of the Beethoven piano trios and violin sonatas. The performances are sequenced on the set in chronological order of composition, so No.2 comes ahead of No.1 on disc one, with No.3 the sole occupant of the middle disc, and Nos.4 & 5 on the third disc. The booklet notes are full and helpful, and the clear and spacious SACD sound serves these works well.
The rivals in such repertoire are innumerable, unless we focus on the closest comparisons technically – i.e. complete cycles in original (not remastered) SACD sound - in which case I know only two. Those cycles are each on three individual discs (not yet collected together), and each adds another work to the disc that contains the Third Concerto. They are from Olli Mustonen, both playing and conducting (on Ondine in 2007, 2008 and 2009), which adds the piano version of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and Yevgeny Sudbin and Osmo Vänskä (on BIS in 2010, 2013, and 2017), which adds Mozart’s C minor Concerto K491. Both of those pianists’ cycles are more overtly characterful than Minnaar, more determined to do something with the music beyond being its faithful servant. That does not make them superior of course, just different. All three are highly recommendable modern cycles in top-notch sound, and Minnaar’s very satisfying cycle might yet prove to be the more central recommendation among them.