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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: 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]

LSO Live issued this disc in March 2019 to mark the 90th birthday of Bernard Haitink and two of my colleagues reviewed it then. However, it came to me just a few weeks ago and it seems appropriate to comment on it again, since it arrived with me just a matter of days after Haitink, on the cusp of retirement from the concert hall, conducted his farewell London concert. That concert was given as part of the 2019 BBC Proms and it also included a Beethoven piano concerto – in this case the Fourth – as well as a magisterial reading of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. My Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard had the good fortune to be present in the Royal Albert Hall to review the occasion; I had to content myself with listening on Radio 3.

On that occasion the pianist was Emmanuel Ax – deputising for an indisposed Murray Perahia - and the orchestra the Vienna Philharmonic. Here, in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, Haitink is working with the Portuguese pianist, Maria Joćo Pires and the orchestra is the LSO. Both of these performances could serve as a suitable metaphor for a strand that has run through Haitink’s career spanning some 65 years. As well as deep musicality and a reluctance to put himself in the spotlight, his career has been characterised by relationships and longstanding partnerships. Murray Perahia, for instance, must have been devastated that he could not appear in Haitink’s last concerts because he and the Dutch maestro go back a long, long way; indeed, one of the very first sets of the Beethoven piano concertos that I accumulated was the set that Perahia recorded with Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for Sony Classical. However, when Perahia was obliged to withdraw Emanuel Ax stepped in, a player who first appeared with Haitink decades ago, thus beginning another long collaboration. As for Maria Joćo Pires, she has appeared frequently as the concerto soloist – mainly in Mozart, as I recall – when Haitink has appeared in London with the LSO in recent years. And the LSO, like the Vienna Philharmonic, is one of the select group of orchestras with whom Haitink has developed what seems like an ever-closer bond in the closing decades of his career. So, it’s right and proper that the LSO should have issued a new recording of this Beethoven concerto to mark Haitink’s 90th birthday.

He's recorded the Second Piano Concerto at least once before: with Murray Perahia as part of the aforementioned complete cycle issued by CBS Sony. It’s a fine cycle, still available on CD as a set, though I’m not sure that what used to be the individual discs can now be obtained easily except as downloads. I hadn’t listened to their account of No 2 for some time: what a joy it’s been to remind myself of it by using it as my comparator for this new recording with Maria Joćo Pires.

The Perahia recording was made sometime in the mid-1980s - my copy doesn’t have recording date information in the booklet – with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. This was a studio recording made in what I presume was an empty hall; that’s what it sounds like. The CBS sound is quite bright while the LSO Live recording is rather richer. The pacing of the two performances is not dissimilar, as the respective timings for each movement confirm. In the opening Allegro con brio, it seems to me that the LSO performance, though similarly paced, is a little gentler and urbane as compared to the slightly more sprightly Concertgebouw rendition. Pires offers elegant and incisive playing in a good-humoured performance. Perahia’s witty playing is equally delightful and, in both cases, the orchestral contribution is excellent. Pires uses Beethoven’s own cadenza (from 12:10) and she plays it marvellously. Perahia plays the same cadenza and with equal success.

The way Haitink introduces the Adagio on both recordings, but especially on this new one, you might think Beethoven had added the injunction feierlich (solemnly). He makes the music noble and serious but I must stress that he doesn’t overplay his hand. In these pages the LSO’s collective sound is rich and rewarding. Both pianists give memorable accounts of the music; I love the grace and poetry that we hear from Pires. I’ve heard performances of the Rondo – Molto allegro that have more fizz than either of Haitink’s performances. However, in each case there’s momentum and good spirits in his readings. Pires gives a fine account of this movement though I fancy there’s just a bit more of a spring in Murray Perahia’s step. That said, Pires’ playing is nimble and witty; Haitink and the LSO are with her every step of the way. I think this is a highly enjoyable performance of the Second concerto. Incidentally, my Seen and Heard colleague, Geoff Diggines was present for the second of these 2013 concerts from which this recording comes (review).

Since the partnership between Pires and Haitink is such a good one, it’s mildly disappointing that LSO Live haven’t offered another of their concerto performances on this disc: maybe they don’t have any ‘in the can’. Instead, we have a reissued performance of the Triple Concerto. I’m already familiar with this. I followed Haitink’s Beethoven symphony cycle for LSO Live and this particular performance was the coupling for the Seventh Symphony; I reviewed that disc when it came out. Looking back, I see I found the performance of the slow movement a bit dull; as we’ll see, I’ve revised that view somewhat.

The violin and cello soloists were Gordan Nikolitch and Tim Hugh, respectively the leader and principal cellist of the LSO at that time. Lars Vogt, who joined them to constitute the solo trio, has the least demanding part to play. There’s a good reason for that: as Lindsay Kemp explains in the booklet note, the part was written for Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, who was not a player of professional standard. Nikolitch and Hugh would have been well accustomed to playing together – and it shows – while Vogt fits into the team seamlessly. In fact, on coming back to this performance after quite some time, it struck me that we are effectively hearing chamber music with an orchestral accompaniment, which is surely how it should be in this work.

After a grand opening orchestral introduction to the first movement Nikolitch and Hugh both make excellent initial impressions. Vogt is rather more reticent, but that’s the nature of this piano part. I mentioned that the piece sounds like chamber music with an orchestral accompaniment and in this regard the soloists have, in Haitink, an ideal partner. He lets the orchestra have its head where appropriate but when the soloists are involved, he’s the model of a considerate accompanist. The performance as a whole is more intimate in approach than the 1969 Karajan-conducted EMI recording which features the big musical personalities of David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter (review). There, one is conscious of being in the presence of stellar soloists; the rewards that one experiences from their collaboration are great.

In the Largo, Haitink’s soloists play with great sensitivity; Tim Hugh’s opening solo - and indeed his contribution throughout – is particularly satisfying. Both he and Nikolitch offer fine cantabile playing; their lines are beautifully sung with the LSO providing an ideally restrained accompaniment. Vogt plays a full part in the success of the performance. As I indicated earlier, I think my initial reaction, back in 2006, that the account of this slow movement was a bit dull was too harsh. That said, I listened to the Oistrakh/Rostropovich/ Richter performance and was spellbound by their artistry. The LSO Live performance of the finale begins in relaxed vein and blossoms out into a good-spirited account of the music, even if this movement isn’t Beethoven at his finest.

So, here we have two very good Beethoven concerto performances. It might be thought that LSO Live might have celebrated Bernard Haitink’s 90th birthday with a recording of a major symphony. However, he’s always been renowned as an expert and considerate accompanist, whether for concerto soloists or for singers, so I think it’s good that this release focussed on his great and perceptive skills as an accompanist.

Though Bernard Haitink initially announced he would take a one-year sabbatical after his engagements in summer 2019 it’s now universally acknowledged that he has actually retired – though I gather Emmanuel Ax, his last soloist, quipped that he would give it six months and then fully expected to see Haitink agreeing to deputise for an indisposed colleague several decades younger than he. I wish! This justly admired, self-effacing great musician has left the stage. We are unlikely to see his like again but fortunately we have a very substantial recorded legacy through which we can continue to savour and admire his artistry. This desirable LSO Live hybrid SACD is a very pleasing addition to that legacy. I hope, though, that the LSO might have a few more Haitink performances in their archives which can be issued in due course.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Robert Cummings ~ Simon Thompson


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