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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 [28:39]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ [37:36]
Martin Helmchen (piano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Andrew Manze
rec. 2018/19, Teldex Studio, Berlin (2); Philharmonie, Berlin (5)
ALPHA CLASSICS 555 [66:25]

The Beethoven piano concertos are extremely well represented in the record catalogue and I was keen to discover how this new Alpha Classics release of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 5 matches up to my favourite recordings. For Alpha the soloist is Berlin-born Martin Helmchen with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO Berlin) under Andrew Manze. It seems this is the first volume of Helmchen’s complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos.

Experiencing a long and protracted creation of around a decade with the Piano Concerto No. 2, it wasn’t until 1798 when Beethoven eventually wrote down the complete score. At the Burgtheater Vienna in 1795 Beethoven for the first time played a work of his own in public, which was thought to be the Piano Concerto No. 2. One soon feels that Martin Helmchen is delighting in this repertoire with unfailingly stylish playing and an unbridled cheerful spirit. In Helmchen’s hands the touching Adagio with its lyrical melody has a poetry that is caught so gloriously.

Beethoven completed the Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1809, during the time of the Napoleonic Wars and a terribly testing period in his life. Napoleon’s armies had reached the gates of Vienna, which was under siege and suffering weighty artillery bombardment; it seems that Beethoven sought shelter in cellars. Beethoven’s life as a virtuoso pianist had virtually ended owing to his profound deafness and he didn’t give the premičre. It was his pupil and the score’s dedicatee, Archduke Rudolph who played the first performance given privately in 1811 at Palais Lobkowitz, Vienna. Evidently a publisher first named the work the ‘Emperor, and the nickname stuck. Helmchen is clearly undaunted by the challenges of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’, such a defiant and magnificent score. This is an uplifting performance from Helmchen, penetrating with a distinct sense of purpose. This dazzling account has irrepressible vitality in the outer movements and the entirely convincing interpretation of the affecting Adagio firmly draws in the listener. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is on illustrious form while Andrew Manze conducts with assurance; they prove to be understanding partners for Helmchen. The concertos were recorded at two Berlin locations: the Concerto No. 2 at Teldex Studio and the ‘Emperor’ at the Philharmonie. Both performances benefit from splendid studio sound, being pleasingly clear and well balanced. Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford is the author of the booklet essay.

For Alpha Classic, Martin Helmchen demonstrates his prowess in these Beethoven concertos with
unfailingly stylish and frequently ebullient playing. I have many recordings of these concertos and this is definitely an album I’m happy to add to my collection of favourite Beethoven recordings. Collectors face an extensive, often bewildering choice with a seemingly endless stream of Beethoven recordings entering the catalogues, including a substantial number of complete sets of the symphonies, concertos, sonatas etc. Many of the well-established complete sets, often remastered, are priced extremely competitively, too. With 2020 being the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth I certainly expect a stream of recordings will be joining the already swollen ranks. In the five piano concertos I personally tend to prefer modern instrument performances; to my ears, those explore deeper beneath the surface precision of the score and communicate vivid tonal shading, notably in the recordings from Maurizio Pollini with Claudio Abbado on DG; Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink on Sony; Emil Gilels with George Szell/Leopold Ludwig on EMI, Wilhelm Kempff with Ferdinand Leitner on DG; and Daniel Barenboim with Otto Klemperer on EMI. If pushed, my principal choice is Pollini, for his unshakable musicianship and level of drama, superbly accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado. Pollini was recorded live in 1992/93 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on DG. For those who enjoy these concertos played on period instruments there is the exceptional recent release featuring Ronald Brautigam playing a fortepiano with Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens on BIS. On this evidence I will certainly be looking out for Martin Helmchen’s future recordings of the three remaining Beethoven concertos.

Michael Cookson

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