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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 Joo Pires (piano: 2)
Lars Vogt (piano: triple)
Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
Tim Hugh (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live 17 & 21 February, 2013 (2); 26-27 November, 2005 (triple), Barbican Centre, London
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0745 [66:52]

The Second is Beethoven’s earliest completed piano concerto and is in some ways the black sheep of the composer’s five, being the least played and recorded, and showing the obvious influence of Mozart and Haydn. Moreover, while it has its serious moments, it is mostly light and divulges relatively little struggle or conflict, traits so closely identified with typical Beethoven. It’s no surprise then that the composer himself admitted to his publisher that the work was “not one of the best.” But let’s look on the positive side: the concerto is witty, thematically appealing, structurally imaginative and clearly recognizable as Beethoven despite influences. And while it may not be as popular as the other four concertos in the set—especially the last three—it is hardly neglected, owing in part to the many complete sets of the concertos by countless pianists. But even if it were separated from the others, it would still hold a place in the repertory.

Portuguese-born pianist Maria Joo Pires, a long-recognized virtuoso pianist with a lengthy and varied discography, makes about as good a case for the artistic worth of this concerto as almost any other pianist I’ve heard. She exhibits a fluency and elegance in her approach, pointing up the kinship with Mozart, a composer she has been associated with throughout much of her career. But she can add muscle and impart a sense of angst too, as she does with the first movement cadenza, which Beethoven added in 1809, fourteen years after he completed the concerto. Overall, her account of the first movement is delivered with a sense of ease, phrases moulded with the utmost sensitivity to the emotional flow of the music. Tempos are moderate and always seem to fit her eloquent expressive manner. The second movement has a lovely dreaminess in her hands, her dynamics perfectly suited to the serene character of the music. The Rondo finale brims with energy and playfulness and seems to gain a bit more momentum and joy as it progresses. While some pianists may give the rollicking nature of the music here a more robust vigor, I find Pires’ elegance equally effective. Bernard Haitink and the LSO provide her with fine support throughout. The three B’s—Brendel, Buchbinder, and Barenboim—have all delivered multiple accounts of this concerto with excellent results, but this effort by Pires and Haitink can hold its own against the best.

While the Second Concerto offers some challenges to the soloist, the piano part in the Triple Concerto is relatively manageable or, some might assert, easy. The cellist has more a demanding role, the violinist a bit less so. The work is also not one of the composer’s more popular concertos, and is in fact encountered less than the Second Piano Concerto both on record and in the concert hall. That said, like its disc mate it isn’t exactly neglected either, drawing performances from such stellar teams as Rostropovich-Oistrakh-Richter, Ma-Perlman-Barenboim, Starker-Szeryng-Arrau and many others.

In this LSO Live performance, tempos are generally a bit on the expansive side, but well within normal limits, as the music never lacks spirit or sounds dull. The three soloists work well together: their respective entries in the first movement feature a sense of subtlety in their dynamics and overall phrasing, cellist Tim Hugh states the main theme with elegance and feeling, violinist Gordan Nikolitch follows with much the same fine instincts, and pianist Lars Vogt joins in with a little less delicacy, but with a measured tone to maintain the sonic balance among the three instrumentalists. The entire movement is well played and the exchanges among the three are always sensitive to the character of the music. The second movement is beautifully phrased, yielding one of the more lush and Romantic accounts I’ve ever heard. The finale is joyous and lively, but one might favor a slightly brisker tempo here: the music goes on a bit too long for its materials and thus needs a very spirited tempo to succeed fully. Still, overall this is a reasonably good rendition of the finale.

In 2018, I reviewed another recording of the Triple Concerto that featured cellist Anne Gastinel, violinist Gil Shaham, and pianist Nicholas Angelich on Nave. I would give a slight edge to the cellist and violinist on the Nave disc, though Lars Vogt here is just as good as Angelich, maybe better. Tim Hugh, principal cellist with the LSO and Gordan Nikolitch, the first concertmaster until 2017, certainly play well but are at times a bit reticent, though they are always tasteful and sensitive artists. No complaints about Haitink and the LSO: they are once again in fine form, both in accompanying passages and when they take the lead.

The sound reproduction on these SACD live recordings is quite fine, with good balances among the soloists in the Triple Concerto. Both these performances were issued on prior LSO Live releases, though this is the first time they’ve appeared together. In sum, this is an excellent account of the Second Piano Concerto and a good but not outstanding performance of the Triple Concerto.

Robert Cummings

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