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Of all the Beethoven 250 releases that have come my way in 2020, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about these repertoire staples, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and his Swedish team come along and remind you that they contain bottomless riches, and can still sound freshly minted two centuries after their creation.
Several things lie at the heart of the set’s success. Chief among them is Bavouzet’s decision to direct the ensemble from the keyboard. That leads to an uncommon synthesis between piano and orchestra which brings rewards in a sense of directness of communication. There is never a hint of a mismatch or of diverging visions, and the longer rehearsal process reaps great dividends, something Bavouzet himself writes about in the booklet note.
The other great element of success is the orchestral sound; the lean transparency that you only really get when a chamber orchestra play this music, and that gives the music a lift and airiness that makes it really special. True, it isn’s always a boon, but in almost every case it reaps huge rewards.
The magic that comes when these things combine is evident in the opening tutti of both No. 1 and No. 2. The opening of No. 1, in particular, had me grinning while I listened to it: it’s so rich with bounce and life that it bounds out of the speakers, and the centuries between us and Beethoven seem to melt away as you listen. The orchestra mostly play on modern instruments, but the natural trumpets and timps make a huge difference, giving the sound an extra edge of bite that makes a big difference in the climaxes.
Overall, particularly in these early concertos, there is a mood of tremendous good humour. Bavouzet seems to play every run and trill with a smile on his face. The first movement of No. 1 carries a tremendous sense of momentum. The second is taken at a jaunty walking pace, and the bustling finale is a total joy, the piano played with a sparkle and a wink. The orchestra clearly loves every tutti and the overall effect is totally life-affirming.
Next to this celebration there is a breezy ease to the opening movement of no. 2, with an occasional lean into a string phrase that adds a little spice and keeps the listener curious. There follows an easy charm to the slow movement: it’s lovely, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and so has a relaxed appeal. Likewise, the finale bustles unfussily. Incidentally, Bavouzet plays the cadenzas that Beethoven wrote out in 1809, and builds each of them organically into the structure, particularly the impressive fugue in that of No. 2’s first movement.
In the opening of No. 4, gorgeously soft strings answer the piano’s opening question, but the rest of the movement is more pacey than you might expect, and overall rather lively. Bavouzet seems to want to banish any impression of the Elysian Fields: instead this music has too much life in it to speak of other-worldly bliss. In fact, there is a lovely sense of good humour throughout. It’s definitely on the fast side, too much so for some, and I'm not sure I'd always want my Beethoven to sound like this, but it's an exciting alternative, and only occasionally does it feel rushed. The second movement is clipped and urgent, more con moto than Andante, but the finale feels very natural, and perfectly balanced with the added trumpets and timps, particularly in the exciting dash to the finish line.
The set is crowned with a fantastic rendition of the Emperor. Again, it’s definitely on the fast side, so if you’re a fan of Klemperer’s approach then you should stay away, but the energy of the opening tutti had me grinning broadly throughout. Bavouzet’s piano line sparkles throughout, with never the tiniest hint of heaviness, or of being intimidated by the scale of the work he is performing. Throughout the first movement things are pert and purposeful and, repeatedly, Bavouzet even manages to make it sound like a dance. How much more so the finale, which bounds out of your speakers with unstoppable energy. Remarkably, Bavouzet still keeps up an overall legato of the line throughout so that nothing ever feels jagged or fragmentary, right down to the ebullient storm over the finish line. In this company the slow movement is surprisingly restrained, taken at a leisurely walking pace and never pushing the speed. The piano unfolds gently from within, its soft, dreamy hue completely bewitching, and the orchestral sound is a total delight, too, the strings and winds seeming to caress one another as they approach the end of the movement.
Only in No. 3 did my enthusiasm wane slightly. Again, the approach is fast, though this time it slightly lessens the drama rather than intensifying it, particularly in the first movement. The orchestra makes up for it in the coda, which sounds positively febrile with its lithe strings, acidic winds and clipped, focused tutti sound. However, the slow movement is the only place in the set where I noticed the disadvantages of using a chamber orchestra. Here you lose some of the richness: the winds, in particular, sound a little too transparent, almost to the point of spareness. They’re still beautiful, however, and the finale is pleasingly mischievous if, again, on the light side.
The set’s USP is the “extra”, the Grand Quintet for piano and winds. Here, however, it isn’t just a filler: it’s a total delight. The blend of the five instruments is sensational: even though the clarinet is so centrally important here, this feels like a union of equals, and the Chandos recorded sound really comes into its own. The piano’s theme, introducing the main Allegro, feels like welcoming an old friend, and the way the winds respond speaks of how much they must have enjoyed making this set. There follows a sensationally beautiful slow movement and a delightfully chirpy finale. In short, wonderful.
The slightly eccentric speeds and the less powerful third concerto are the only things stopping me from giving this a complete thumbs up (and our “Recommended” award), and I still prefer Howard Shelley and Harnoncourt/Aimard as overall recommendations for the complete set of concertos; but Bavouzet’s set remains a breath of fresh air, and I’ll go back to it to rediscover the celebratory joy of these works. Despite the blemishes, my initial judgement remains unchanged: of all the Beethoven 250 releases that have come my way in 2020, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most.