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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” [36:26]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [26:58]
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. 2017, Ensemblehaus Freiburg, Germany
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902411 [60:03]

This is one of those tricky occasions where, as a critic, I have to acknowledge my prejudices while simultaneously setting them aside, because I didn’t like this disc much at all, but I can definitely understand why somebody else would love it.

The reason is the disc’s USP, the thing that would attract so many buyers to it, and that’s the fortepiano (a copy of an 1824 Graf). Goodness, but it grated my ears! I’ve written before about how I struggle with the fortepiano’s sound; and even writing that sentence makes me appreciate what a crude generalisation I’m making about the instrument. I’ve tried again and again to like it, in spite of myself. Oh, how I’ve tried! But I’ve never made my peace with it, even when it’s played by artists who, I’m assured, are masters of the instrument, such as Andreas Staier or, as here, Kristian Bezuidenhout. I just can’t get over the miniature, tinkly sound. It makes me think of a piano as heard through a wet paper bag, and I’m now starting to think that I’m an irreconcilable opponent.

For me, it just doesn’t suit Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. Now I know that’s an absurd thing to say, because it’s the instrument for which Beethoven wrote the concerto in the first place, but it’s a work of such vaulting ambition and towering scale that this piddling instrument just doesn’t sound up to the challenge. I couldn’t abide the way the notes don’t sustain, or the way they sometimes disappear into the orchestral texture, and I’m entirely prepared to accept that the fault is mine. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been raised on pianoforte players like Brendel, Zimmerman, Barenboim and Lewis, whose big instrument seems to grow within Beethoven’s music and give it exciting life. Next to them, this performance felt pale and flaccid.

Which isn’t in the slightest to criticise Kristian Bezuidenhout: the fault is the instrument’s, not his. In fact, there were several moments in the concerto where I thought his playing style completely delightful. Particularly, in both the second and third movements, there’s a delicate rubato to his touch that gave the music’s shape a whole new inflection, and he plays with the loveliest sensitivity in his interaction with the winds.

If there is a star on this recording, however, it’s the orchestra, not the keyboard. The period players of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, capably led by Heras-Casado, create a beautifully balanced sound for the Emperor concerto, where winds, brass and strings sound perfectly matched to one another, something I repeatedly appreciated and enjoyed, despite the keyboard. I know, I know: how can I flatter the period balance of the orchestra while yearning for the sound of a modern grand piano? I understand the contradiction, but I can only say how I responded with honesty from the heart, while recognising that other (completely valid) opinions are available.

This team are planning a three-disc traversal of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, and maybe their fault was starting at the wrong end of the set, because I enjoyed No. 2 much more. The fortepiano sound bothered me a little less because here it sounds much more a part of the orchestral texture rather than the hero of No. 5. In fact, you can hear Bezuidenhout busking along gently to the opening tutti, and here he feels much more like first among equals. That, of course, works much better with this concerto, which is still an essentially 18th-century piece, and the interplay of fortepiano and orchestra works much better, extending to some beautifully relaxed phrases in the slow movement, and some delightful touches of humour in the finale.

I’m afraid the Emperor rules this disc out of court for me, though. Give me Barenboim/Klemperer or Zimmerman/Bernstein any day, or even Lewis/Belohlávek. However, if you like the sound of a fortepiano then please feel free to disagree vigorously with every word I’ve said.

Harmonia Mundi’s recorded sound is as excellent as ever, and the booklet notes are very informative though, beyond the front cover, their choice of photographs is unintentionally hilarious.

Simon Thompson

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