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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Klavierkonzert D-Dur, Op 61a (1806 arr. 1807) [42:24]
Musik zu einem Ritterballett, WoO 1 (1790-91) [11:11]
Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, op. 91 (1813) [15:17]
Claire Huangci (piano)
Brandenburgs Staatsorchester Frankfurt/Howard Griffiths
rec. 2017, Konzerthalle ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’, Frankfurt (Oder).
KLANGLOGO KL1521 [68:54]

I’ve admired Claire Huangci’s Scarlatti and Chopin in the past, so was delighted to be offered this CD for review. Entitled Beethoven Rarities, there is only one work I had yet to encounter on previously experienced recordings, but the repertoire chosen does indeed go beyond more typically found opus numbers when it comes to the piano concertos.

The Piano Concerto in D major Op. 61a is better known as Beethoven’s one and only Violin Concerto, adapted for piano shortly after its premiere at the request of Muzio Clementi, then acting in his capacity as a publisher. The orchestral part remained the same with the exception of extra timpani notes in the extensive 1st movement cadenza, but the piano part is made into something suitably idiomatic and rather different while keeping the essence of the original.

Huangci and Griffiths take quite a broad view of the first movement, the opening timpani strokes taken gently, easing us into quite a pastoral atmosphere. This is not without contrast however, and subtle dynamics at lower level allow a great amount of space for expressive movement and dramatic impact where demanded. The balance between orchestra and piano is excellent in this recording, allowing the soloist to fully adopt the accompanying role quite often given by Beethoven. The feeling of suspense at the quieter transitions is palpable, and while you can argue for a little more forward momentum I didn’t feel frustrated in this regard, enjoying the quality of musicianship on offer from all concerned.

My mother didn’t like Beethoven because she felt he was ‘shouting at her’, but the second movement of this concerto is one of his more beautiful and songlike pieces, played with subtle elegance in this case – extending lines without losing sight of necessary articulation, and creating a lovely romantic atmosphere. This is by no means the longest version of this movement I’ve heard, but we’re in absolutely no hurry, enjoying a 9-minute repose before the finale takes flight. This Rondo with its distinctive theme has a joyous dancing character, and this is reflected playing of appealing lightness. This recording brings out the Haydn in Beethoven, rather than imposing revolutionary weight into music that has major-key playfulness at its heart.

This is by no means the first time that Beethoven’s Op. 61a has been recorded. Artur Balsam’s recording from the early 1950s on the Bridge label (review) still makes a powerful impression, but mono sound, rumble from the LP transfer and rather boomy timpani are disadvantages here. Leaving modern versions with fortepiano aside, there’s a sprightly chamber-orchestra recording on the Simax label with Boris Berezovsky and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Orebro conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (review). This has the advantage of greater clarity with the orchestra’s inner lines, and has a full and attractive sound with excellent playing. I’m still a big fan of Howard Shelley’s Beethoven concerto set on Chandos (review), a set that has its own fair share of rarities though I am aware that the blowsy contribution of Leeds Town Hall’s acoustic won’t be for everyone. Despite the resonance this is a recording with decent enough clarity, and while Shelley tends to pull things around more than Huangci there is no doubting the musicianship on show here. The conclusion from comparisons is that Claire Huangci’s recording can easily compete with and/or rise above any alternative in the catalogue.

The least familiar work here is the Musik zu einem Ritterballett, 24 dances that form one of Beethoven’s earliest orchestral compositions. These were written for a ballet scenario conceived by Count Waldstein for the carnival in Bonn. The themes of this theatrical event were summed up by a contemporary reviewer as “the inclination of our forefathers to war, hunting, love and alcohol.” There are indeed hunting calls from the horns, a Romance from pizzicato strings, a Krigslied and a lively Trinklied, all separated by repeats of a Deutscher Gesang in the form of a minuet. This is all great fun but, as one would expect, not Beethoven’s greatest achievement.

Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria is something of a propaganda work that celebrates European liberation from Napoleon, being first performed not long after victory over Napoleon at the battle of Leipzig. There are more adventurous and gimmicky recordings of Beethoven’s Wellington’s Sieg around, with Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic version on Deutsche Grammophon from 1987 sending the armies in from left and right and playing around with sound levels and heavy gunfire, to deliver an impression of duelling musicians on the move. This is no doubt great fun for 9-year olds, but wears thin quite quickly in reality. Sir Neville Marriner’s version with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra on Philips/Decca starts with an entire acoustic narrative of birdsong on the battle field, galloping horses and offstage brass, and further along even heavier gunfire than Karajan. What we have in this Frankfurt recording is something similar to what you might have expected to hear at the first performance, with drums and rattles left and right of the stage symbolising gunfire quite effectively, but in proportion to the rest of the orchestral activity. This is an occasional work that shows Beethoven’s ability to turn his hand to dramatic musical imagery in a similar way to the storm scene in the Pastoral Symphony, and I greatly enjoy the way it has been prepared and performed here, with plenty of suitable bombast but no artistic compromises to transient novelty.

Superbly recorded and performed this is an easily recommendable disc, and what we jaded reviewers refer to as ‘a keeper’ despite the over-proliferation of IV-I cadences in the latter half of the programme. Plaudits go to producer Frank Hallmann and co-producers Nick and Clemens Prokop for their rich sonics, who reveal the Brandenburgs Staatsorchester Frankfurt to be a very fine orchestra indeed. The synergy between soloist and conductor in the concerto is well nigh faultless, and the whole project has a positive vibe which should bring cheer to your day.

Dominy Clements

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