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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 [31:01]
Triple Concerto in C major for piano, violin and cello, Op. 56 [35:51]
Maria Joćo Pires (piano: Concerto No. 2), Lars Vogt (piano: Triple Concerto), Gordan Nikolitch (violin) Tim Hugh (cello) London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 17 & 21 February, 2013 (Concerto No. 2), 26-27 November 2005 (Triple Concerto), Barbican Centre, London
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0745 [66:52]

I came to this disc straight after listening to Bavarian Radio’s bumper box of Haitink recordings, released to celebrate the great conductor’s 90th birthday. This LSO Live release doesn’t explicitly claim that that’s the reason why they’ve put out this disc, but it would explain why they’ve chosen to release two very different performances of very different works recorded eight years apart.

Haitink loves to work in long term partnerships, and his career with the London Symphony Orchestra is long and distinguished. In fact, his recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies were one of the earliest hits of the LSO Live label, so there’s a nice symmetry to their releasing some of his Beethoven concertos here.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the second piano concerto – it’s clearly Beethoven’s least interesting concerto – but this thoughtful performance nearly won me over. Haitink treats it as though it were chamber music, with a scaled back orchestra and a smaller sound. It works very well with this piece, and Maria Joćo Pires meets him on the same platform, with delicate piano sound and a lightness of touch that suits the piece very well in the first movement. You also get that in the finale, which is light-hearted and bouncy but not self-consciously so, and there’s an old-school feel to the approach that means it never quite loses its air of gravitas; a young man’s music rather than a reckless schoolboy’s. The slow movement is rather special, though, with hushed string playing that gives the music a reverential feel that it rarely gets (or deserves?). Pires plays the solo line without falling into too sacral a state of hypnosis, though she and Haitink make the coda sound as though they’re treading, hushed, across a temple threshold. Still, it’s an approach to this work that you don’t often hear and, as such, I found it very effective.

The Triple Concerto benefits from that same attention to detail. The opening movement unfolds in quiet majesty from the pianissimo opening to the triumphal coda, but along the way nothing is routine. The repeated string figurations that accompany the unfolding of the first theme sound clipped, precise and important; you could never dismiss them as mere chugging, as can happen elsewhere. Similarly, there is a hushed simplicity to the slow movement that I found very appealing, and the finale has a self-satisfied air that suits the music very well. The violin and cello soloists are drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, and whether it’s because of that or thanks to Haitink’s leadership, Lars Vogt’s pianism is tamed. He can play the keyboard like a bull at a gate, but there’s none of that here. Instead the harmony between the three soloists is understated and beautifully realised, and they fit into the orchestral picture very effectively while serving the conductor’s vision well.

Really good recordings of the Triple Concerto are still quite thin on the ground and, unfashionable as it now is to say so, I still love Karajan’s Berlin version with Richter, Rostropovich and Oistrakh. This LSO one isn’t on that level, but it’s good in its own right. Put it with Pires in the second concerto and you have a very worthwhile disc.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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