This is the first of what one presumes will be two double albums in which Inon Barnatan and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields cover the Beethoven piano concertos. There’s a note from the pianist in the booklet saying how surprised he was – as were the orchestra themselves – to discover that this was their first-ever complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle – as, indeed, was I.
The conductor is Alan Gilbert, whom Inon Barnatan apparently knows well from his days as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Gilbert is now principal conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Barnatan himself was born in Tel Aviv but lives in New York, and has recently toured the US with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, whom he describes as part of his musical family.
Also in this family are cellist Alisa Weilerstein and violinist Stefan Jackiw, so naturally the place to start would be the Beethoven concertante for violin, violoncello and piano with full orchestra – better known as his Triple Concerto. I was delighted to find it in this double album; too few famous artists see it as part of the central Beethoven canon. I find it stimulatingly different, a product of Beethoven’s original thinking, and I have waited for years for a version which gives it the performance it deserves.
However, I fear that this isn’t quite it. While the recording of the trio is clear and engaging, it is set against an orchestral sound which is rather congested and very full. I wanted to hear the bouncy timpani strokes which set the tempo for the opening tutti, but the drum is almost inaudible under the heavy orchestral sound.
The problem with having three soloists in this work can be that they compete to see who is best (which, by all accounts, is what happened when Herbert von Karajan conducted Rostropovich, Richter and Oistrakh fifty years ago, EMI 6787052). This doesn’t seem to be the problem here, though the versions performed by an actual trio, who are used to accommodating each other’s foibles, still seem to me to have the edge (I still have a soft spot for the thirty-year-old recording of the Trio Zingara with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by no less a person than former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath IMP PCD 917 nla)
The coupling for this disc is Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the one which opens with the piano. Ian Barnatan is almost holy in his approach and the whole atmosphere seems to me to be over-reverent, though his touch is lovely. I heard Martin Roscoe play it with the BBC Philharmonic a few weeks ago, and I appreciated his forthright and straightforward approach.
The other disc contains Beethoven’s first and third piano concertos. This recording of the first – actually the third if you include teenage attempts – is again marred for me by that close orchestral sound, but Barnatan’s playing is superb; he enters the final movement at an exultant pace and has all those complex sidestepping rhythms under his fingers. The third seems to me to be a better recording, and the pick of the pack. Here, Barnatan’s reverent approach in the second movement seems to pay dividends, while the finale is lively and full of incident.
I suppose that in this year of Beethoven 250th anniversary celebrations there will be many good, middle-of-the-road discs of standard repertoire issued; few will survive.
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