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Beethoven String Quartets


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Beethoven Piano Concertos


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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major [26:58]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major [36:26]
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. 2017, Ensemblehaus, Freiburg, Germany
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902411 [63:28]

My colleague Simon Thompson was perfectly clear in his review that he did not like this disc but could quite understand why others might. I write from the point of view of one of those others because for me the only sensible way to recapture the impact of these concerti on Beethoven’s contemporaries is to recreate what they might have heard, warts and all. There are plenty of wonderful recordings of the 2nd and 5th Piano Concertos played in the traditional way on a modern concert grand with a modern – i.e. 20th and 21st century – symphony orchestra. My own collection has Solomon, Arrau and Gilels in No.2 and Solomon, Arrau, Curzon, Panenka and Richter-Haaser in No.5, all of whom are first class exponents accompanied by first class conductors and orchestras. All of them would have surprised Beethoven in terms of sound alone, let alone tempi and instrumental balance. He might well be delighted by the “advances” in instrumental capabilities and to an equal extent disappointed that they have missed so many subtleties of balance, phrasing and timbre and probably much else that he assumed his audiences would hear. That is why my collection also embraces Brautigam, Immerseel and Levin who each make huge efforts to recapture these subtleties by using a period keyboard.

To their number I must now add Kristian Bezuidenhout. Or must I? His instrument is a copy of an 1824 Graf. It should be noted that the 2nd (actually the 1st) concerto dates from 1795 and the 5th premiered in 1811. Robert Levin uses a copy of a 1795 Walter for No.2 and an original (presumably reconditioned) Lagrassa from 1812 for 5; Brautigam uses a copy 1805 Walter and a copy of an 1819 Graf; Immerseel a copy of a 1795-1800 Walter and an early 19th century restored Viennese action Tröndlin. All this only matters if the fortepianos and manufacturers changed significantly between 1795 and 1824, and by significantly I mean capabilities and sound. We know a little about Beethoven’s keyboards. For a usefully detailed account see The Beethoven Reference Site but to summarise he is thought to have had 5 octave models by Walter, Streicher and Schanz in his early years, an Erard around 1803 with the Una Corda pedal he so liked and soon afterwards a Stein. In 1818 he was given an English Broadwood about which he was reported to have been ecstatic. At the end of his life, well after all his concertos were written, he did indeed have a 6 octave Graf similar to the one Bezuidenhout uses. Beethoven was very aware of how much fortepiano sound changed over this period. Even in the early days he wrote to Johann Streicher (see Harold Schonberg The Great Pianists) saying “often one thinks one is merely listening to a harp,” and congratulating Streicher on his awareness of the problem. “I hope”, he said, “that the time will come when harp and pianoforte will be treated as different instruments.” The reader is invited to investigate further but it is hard not to accept that what Beethoven used was very unlike any modern keyboard and that it was evolving fast during his lifetime from something fairly quiet and harp-like, the which similarity Una Corda pedals emphasized, to something still rather clangourous but still quieter and differently coloured to any we have today. The impact of all this on possibilities for phrasing, colour and especially balance between soloist and orchestra is obvious. As is the fact that Beethoven’s ideas at each stage were stretching his keyboards to, often literal, breaking point. That tension is vital in recapturing early performances.

Getting back to the present recording and to why I too did not like this CD very much. No issues with the wonderful Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or the vitality of soloist and conductor. Significant issues however with the fortepiano because it is so loud. This is partly because it is a bigger instrument than Beethoven would have known at the time. Robert Levin in particular shows the advantages, in terms of balance and subtlety, in his set on DG Archiv, of using an early Walter. The notes accompanying this Harmonia Mundi CD do discuss the choice of instrument and Bezuidenhout is an expert in the field so my disagreement with his choice can be safely regarded as small beer. My concern with the recording balance cannot be ignored. This smallish Graf sounds across the entire stereo image from far left to far right. Proof of too many microphones, too close to the instrument. The result is that the treble end of the keyboard appears to come from both extremes instead of being somewhat to the left of centre and the bass is a large wash of sound. The balance between soloist and orchestra has been changed in the most unmusical way so that the soloist is never threatened by the orchestra as would have been the case in 1795 and even 1811, so the tension vanishes. This is such a pity and better production engineering could have solved the problem. This new set, the rest yet to be released, has to compete with the three above and others I have not heard. Of my recordings they all do better with balance and instrumental choice and Levin best of all in reproducing a small central image for the fortepiano with an orchestra spread behind. The sense of difficulty in making himself heard in pounding dramatic passages is very realistic. Sometimes he almost disappears either because of softer colouring or lack of decibels.

Excellent and detailed notes (even if the disc timing on the cover is incorrect) and an all-too-detailed recording complete this CD. It is worth hearing but I do not believe it adequately represents either original performance.

Dave Billinge
 
Previous review: Simon Thompson



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