Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1788, rev. 1794-5, 1798) [28:33]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-6) [33:24]
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. The Sage Gateshead Concert Hall, 2017.
Cadenzas by Beethoven.
ONDINE ODE1311-2 [62:16]
This is the third and final release of Lars Vogt’s cycle of Beethoven piano concertos as soloist and conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, of which he has been Music Director since 2015. It follows Piano Concertos 1 and 5 (Ondine ODE 1292-2, review) and Piano Concerto 3 and the Triple Concerto (Ondine ODE 1297-2, review). Immediacy is the characteristic I found most telling about his Piano Concertos 1 and 5. In Concerto 3 the characteristic was one of alertness. Now in Concertos 2 and 4 I’d say it’s one of daring, to create vivid accounts of their distinctive features.
The first movement of Piano Concerto 2 is revealed as a contest of two elements: the bounce of its opening tutti phrase with brisk dotted rhythms and the smooth lyricism of the second phrase from the violins. But there are surprises: the sforzandi applied to the bouncy material, not just in the violins but chafing in the violas and cellos; the lyrical material wandering into D flat major (tr. 1, 1:17). Long after its introduction the orchestra gives us a second theme (3:40). Vogt delivers this rather pertly, making the piano’s repeat seem all the smoother and his turn to journey into D flat major (4:16) more magical, yet capped, if anything, by a bravura passage where semiquaver runs in the right hand are countered by a gawky, staccato melodic line in the left before the hands exchange roles. What’s so vivid about this is that Vogt conveys a sense of sheer discovery and enjoyment. There are two surprises late in the movement. First, the veiled and mysterious modulation in the recapitulation to G flat major (9:24). Second, Beethoven’s cadenza dating from 1809. Here Vogt treats the bouncy material of the opening in a bold manner but with a gaunt colouring. The lyrical material begins more warmly but becomes more visionary and rather icy; the bouncy material returns, now playful, now ecstatic. It’s fascinating and Vogt’s playing holds your attention.
As in previous reviews of this cycle I’m comparing a cycle presented whole, recorded in 2015-6 by another pianist conductor with his own band, Stefan Vladar and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (Capriccio C7210). Timing at 13:18 to Vogt’s 14:06, Vladar’s view of Beethoven’s Allegro con brio is pacier. This makes the bouncy material more abrupt while the lyrical is slenderly demure from the VCO. Though the sforzandi are well marked, the orchestral modulation to D flat major is unfortunately smoothed over, though made more distinctive by the piano later and later still in G flat major. Vladar’s opening piano solo attractively manages to be both crisp in articulation and dainty in manner, but later some of his semiquaver runs sound ‘breathlessly’ hectic, for example those paired with the brazen staccato line. There are gains and losses: the pounding quavers on a repeated note in the development sound exciting, but the lyrical material seems a little short-changed. Vladar also takes Beethoven’s cadenza faster, at 2:18 to Vogt’s 2:39. Vladar’s bouncy theme is less bold than Vogt’s and is less clearly articulated towards its early climax. His lyrical theme sounds more routine than Vogt’s. He does create an exciting sense of climax as the sequences of the bouncy theme send it higher.
I was struck by the paradoxes of Vogt’s account of the slow movement. Though marked Adagio, a tempo which usually signals solemnity, Vogt creates an atmosphere of warmth and a leisurely, considered opening melody from the orchestra so that when the piano enters it’s free to elaborate sensitively the already partly ornamental line. The movement’s most memorable and moving part is the coda, in which the piano fashions broken fragments of the melodic line while the orchestra softly repeats and modifies the opening of the movement’s melody. Played with fine poise, Vogt’s piano creates a tender outpouring of the emotive essence of that theme while his orchestra warmly folds around him. It’s a charged relationship between the pianist as individual and orchestra as collective which anticipates that of the slow movement of Concerto 4.
Vladar’s orchestral introduction doesn’t have Vogt’s mellow warmth but does make the dynamic contrasts, sforzandi and his opening demisemiquavers fervent statements. His melodic line as pianist thereafter is fresh, expressive and incorporates some winsome gradations of dynamic which give it an element of humility. His coda is less emotive than Vogt’s and yet achieves its own captivatingly innocent openness of piano expression.
There’s a wilful gaucheness of emphatic syncopation in the theme of the rondo finale (tr. 3) which sounds even more blundering as an orchestral tutti, but there’s a second part that’s more benign and apt for brilliant piano decoration. This it gets from Vogt and you feel his sense of release, paving the way for a dapper, skipping second theme (0:51). I like Vogt’s slight pause on the sforzando at the end of its second phrase to point up its melodic rise. I also like the blend of rigour and enthusiasm with which the RNS deliver the orchestral tutti which really develops an initially straightforward seeming closing descending phrase to lead into the central episode (2:18). Vogt makes this a scampering, mildly choleric affair as its theme appears in turn in G minor, C minor and B flat minor. He also makes sure we appreciate that delicious moment in the coda at 4:46 when the rondo theme chastely appears in G major and unsyncopated, as if to say ‘Look, I’m a transformed man.’
Timing at 5:51 to Vogt’s 6:03, Vladar’s view of Beethoven’s Allegro molto marking is only slightly faster but the effect is less weighty, thereby arguably less Beethovenian, more virtuosic yet also hectic. The second part of the opening section is manically insistent without the sense of the flowing release that Vogt brings. The second theme is breezed through in a disciplined manner, a style which better suits the neat orchestral clarity of its tutti leading into the central episode and the crispness of Vladar’s delivery of the piano material there. Vogt gives the second theme and the return in the coda of the rondo theme in G major a distinctiveness which Vladar does not.
Piano Concerto 4 undoubtedly starts distinctively, the first to begin with a piano solo. Vogt adds another distinction by playing the opening chord as an arpeggio, not marked but as recommended by Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil. You’ll not easily find another recording that does this, though Steven Lubin does in his fortepiano version with the Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood. For me this gives the soft opening greater breadth if less sense of stillness. What Vogt’s opening also has is warmth, gentleness and poise. The sforzando at the solo’s mid-point is treated to a slight pause, as if to reflect on the statement so far and then move to elegant completion. The orchestral response is softer still, the sforzando this time more marked and paused. It’s all serene and maternal, partly owing to the unexpected key change from the piano’s G major to B major, but the RNS bring to its phrasing a wonderful quality of wanting the comfort of staying in the moment but also eager to complete the thought. The second theme (tr. 4, 1:18) begins in quiet, exploratory fashion on first violins, then taken up by oboe and then flute and bassoon in luminous contributions here. But the second part fulfilment of this theme comes when combined with the opening one to propel into a flowering forth (2:02). The piano’s second solo entry is a glittering parade of notes from Vogt, a particularly potent combination being semiquaver triplets in the right hand against staccato and sforzando quavers in the left (from 3:49, more extensively from 5:50). A third theme (4:37), demurely yet also suavely presented by the RNS is immediately made a vehicle for gambolling activity by Vogt. The second theme and flowering forth return, the latter creamily in the flutes and oboes (6:01) while the piano counters with ascents in triplet semiquavers from its lowest to highest registers, beginning loud and finishing soft, Vogt really making the lower notes bellow. This both stimulating and disturbing combination is offered in vivid clarity before Vogt has his own briefly idyllic flowering forth and then an indication of its assertive potential. His piano solo also opens the development (7:32), the closest we’ve come to the intimate contemplation of the opening now in a chillier environment with very soft eerie low-lying strings. It soon adopts a rigorous course with cross rhythms blazingly exchanged between right and left hands (from 8:33), delivered with great fire by Vogt. It’s in a transformed, very loud, declamatory but also magnanimous, blaze that the piano solo opening is recapitulated and now the strings’ response has a rippling upper layer coating from Vogt which you feel can well drizzle down through them.
Vogt plays Beethoven’s most popular, longest cadenza. He revisits the opening solo in volatile manner and then presents a luscious second theme with frolicsome variation before embarking on a stormy realization of the potential of the first theme, unnerving in the gradual increase of intensity Vogt brings to it. Relief comes in the sunlight of the flowering forth theme, but that turns passionate, fraught and sunny again, comforted as the orchestra supports what’s an unusually continuing mood after the cadenza before the definitively affirmative close of its finely layered crescendo.
Vladar plays the work’s opening chord straight and his opening solo is flowing and warm but for me the sforzando is too prominent rather than “an accent within the prevailing dynamic” to quote the New Grove and without the pause and poise of Vogt. The VCO’s response is less warm than the RNS, partly because of those strong sforzandi, yet the woodwind contributions are attractively fresh and the flowering forth of the second theme decisive. Vladar’s second solo doesn’t have the grace of Vogt’s, its glitter a touch strident. The matching of Vladar’s right hand semiquaver triplets and left hand staccato quavers is less striking than Vogt’s because his quavers make less progressive impact: articulation of these is much better at their second appearance. The third theme comes agreeably relaxed and refined from the VCO but I find Vladar’s take-up too vigorously rhythmic to match Beethoven’s dolce marking. The disturbing fusion of the flowering forth theme and piano ascents from gruff bass notes is well realized, though Vladar’s individual flowering forth later has a more fluorescent quality than Vogt’s idyllic sunlight. I don’t feel as much contrast in Vladar’s development because earlier there’s already been an element of cool glare while the presence of the VCO’s lower strings isn’t as creepy as those of the RNS. Vladar’s exchange of cross rhythms between right and left hands is emphatic, yet not quite as excitingly etched as Vogt’s. His recapitulation of the opening theme is proudly, even heroically, proclaimed while the upper layer coating he gives the strings’ response sparkles, albeit with a more brittle, transitory quality than Vogt’s reconciling warmth.
Vladar also plays the longest cadenza. A little faster, timing at 3:04 to Vogt’s 3:37, Vladar’s reappraisal of the opening solo is more volatile and fractious than Vogt’s. His second theme moves from stately to skipping manner. His ‘storm sequence’ is more febrile than Vogt’s but less intense owing to the curious decision at the repetition of the first two of four upper layer dotted crotchets (15:21 in Vladar, 15:52 in Vogt) to soften suddenly. His approach to the flowering forth theme is more melancholic. It’s the return of the orchestra, in particular the soft clarinets’ and first bassoon backing, that win the pianist over, to beautiful and moving effect.
The slow movement is a dramatic encounter between strings and piano which I’m happy to accept depicts Orpheus taming the Furies. The RNS strings’ Furies here are clean cut, efficient, brusque, confident of their own authority, yet ultimately superficial. Vogt’s Orpheus is quiet, humble, fragile, inward, deeply soulful and seems to have all the time in the world. As Vogt puts it in an absorbing interview about the works in the CD booklet, the piano “answers so tenderly but also with a very strong inner faith. In the conviction that if I’m so very at one with myself, all these powers can do nothing against me”. The Furies carry on regardless, but so does Orpheus in an inexhaustible stream of song and they retreat and, turning to occasional pizzicato, seem to sympathize, watching from a distance. Orpheus now has an extraordinary outburst accompanied by a long trill: the jarring dissonance of all this Vogt reveals in full measure. The Furies make no sound until a mellow coda shows how quiescent they now are while Orpheus has a closing anguished sigh.
The VCO’s Furies are arch but not as authoritative as the RNS because their phrasing is stiffer, as if their superficiality is of the self-inflated kind. Vladar’s Orpheus has the almost palpable self-belief of one who has suffered and thereby become wise. Less emotive than Vogt, he attracts less sympathy in response. His outburst doesn’t have the frightening spontaneity of Vogt’s, so you feel this is just the penultimate phase of his presentation, the ultimate one being his sigh, the pause on the appoggiatura of which, less poised than Vogt’s, lingers enough to seem turning on the effect.
The rondo finale (tr. 6) is unusual, a contest between the opening orchestral march and a glowing second theme introduced by the piano (1:10) that gazes to a brighter future. What makes the movement so buzzing is that both piano and orchestra want to inhabit both these worlds. Vogt’s piano version immediately decorates the march with vivacious twirling and adds a leisurely, curvaceous phrase. The tutti orchestra emphatically present the march in full blaze and add their own extension. The woodwinds are eager to share the piano’s second theme. The heavy boots of orchestral chords are matched by bristling piano semiquaver cascades but suddenly softened to velvet slippers before the boots return. Beethoven is constantly varying the perspective. When the rondo theme returns the piano decoration is intimately accompanied by a solo cello, quietly yet smilingly done by that of the RNS. The episode (3:20) is athletic, not so much a tune as a statement of energy exchanged with orchestral fragments of the rondo theme; all very invigorating, yet followed by Vogt’s exquisitely delicate statement of the second theme, like a precious object that must be shaded from the light. The rondo theme also has its more refined moment in a lovely variation for violas and cellos (5:33) in which the RNS briefly luxuriate. Vogt plays Beethoven’s longest cadenza which is brief but varied and powerful. After some splendid posturing it expands the dreamy side of the second theme and then moves into a realm of fantasy.
Vladar’s interpretation of the rondo’s vivace is barely faster than Vogt’s, timing at 9:31 to Vogt’s 9:38, but enough to characterize a more manic approach. It’s brilliantly done, both by Vladar and the VCO, but crispness is bought at the cost of some grace and variety. The appearances of the second theme are more relaxed and idyllic, but this seems escape rather than Vogt’s sense of aspiration. The solo cello accompaniment and later variation for violas and cellos pass relatively uneventfully in comparison with Vogt’s account. I enjoyed most Vladar’s treatment of the episode, contrasting playful orchestra and stormy, remorseless piano. Vladar also plays Beethoven’s longest cadenza. His approach is less weighty than Vogt, but more energetic. His second theme has a regal, even saintly, distance rather than Vogt’s glow and it doesn’t become so much a fantasy as a whirlpool of life force. Vladar excels in excitement while his orchestra matches him with discipline. Vogt’s achievement is to reveal with equal clarity Beethoven’s charm, poetry, power and passion, in all of which soloist and orchestra glow and blend.
Vogt reveals with equal clarity Beethoven’s charm, poetry, power and passion, in all of which soloist and orchestra glow and blend.