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Beethoven’s piano concertos form a remarkable quintet. Although written over a period of about fifteen years, they span the transition between the slight keyboards of the classical period and the instruments not that far removed from what we think of as the modern piano. Likewise, they are immensely varied in character and present a major challenge to any pianist. Here Margarita Höhenrieder (b.1956) tackles all five, each with a different orchestra in five different halls, and with four different conductors, recorded over a period of a dozen years. We thus are presented with a cohesive whole that nevertheless displays the idiosyncrasies of the respective works and conductors.
Höhenrieder is an interesting if not terribly prominent artist. She is able to claim a direct lineage of training through Leon Fleischer to Carl Czerny and back to Beethoven himself. The single word that best describes her playing is “fluid.” Seldom have I heard a pianist who is so fluid that, except when she intentionally plays staccato, the notes virtually disappear. What we hear instead of notes are figures and motif. She does much of the structural work for the listener, making these performances highly engaging even to those who are enormously familiar with these old warhorses. No matter the conductor, she is constantly in sympathetic connection with the orchestra, making these concerts quite special.
The set of five concertos are presented on three DVDs, together with four bonus featurettes. The discs are all region free NTSC, anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The first piano concerto offers large, full sound. In particular, the string tone is quite beautiful and there is excellent balance between the piano and orchestra. As is the case with concertos nos. 2 through 4, Höhenrieder plays Beethoven’s own cadenzas written in 1809 with breathtaking momentum. Of particular note is the playful Rondo that is highly enjoyable. At times during this movement, it can be seen that Höhenrieder does not have the most expansive reach, but she nevertheless provides effortless sound. As an encore to the concerto, she performs the Finale (Presto) by her mentor Harald Genzmer (1909-2000) from his Suite for Piano in C, a frenzy of rapid repetitions and crossed hands.
The second concerto is played in a rather cavernous, echo-filled space, almost like an industrial setting. Once one gets acclimated to the reverberation, it works rather well for this lightest of the five pieces. Höhenrieder pays particular attention to accents and articulations, making for higher drama than one might expect. The woodwinds are surprisingly prominent in the mix, but to good effect. The second movement is highly nuanced, with the pressure on each note lending them heart-rending significance.
The C minor concerto is roughly contemporaneous with the beginning of Beethoven’s hearing loss, at the top of his game as a concert pianist and making a great name for himself as a composer. The dramatic key of C minor gives us a peek inside the composer’s pain. The opening statement of the first movement theme is appropriately dark, and there are beautiful dynamic contrasts in the piano. Her first entrance is dynamic, slipping luxuriously into the lyrical second theme. Frequently Höhenrieder’s hands are moving so rapidly that 24 frames per second cannot hope to keep up with her. The third movement Rondo shows off her detached notes. The kettledrum player is afforded some great moments and makes the most of them.
The Fourth Concerto suffers from a hall that does not seem to have the best acoustics. The orchestra in particular sounds rather bleary and indistinct, though the piano itself comes across fine. The audio is uncomfortably bass heavy, and the balance is a bit off. That’s a shame, because the performance itself is quite fine, but is let down either by the designer of the room or the recording engineers. The cadenza is colossally monumental here and is not to be missed.
Finally the Fifth “Emperor” Concerto (a nickname not bestowed by Beethoven) closes out the set as a memoriam to Leon Fleischer. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, it alone is presented in an auditorium without any audience. The tempo is rather deliberate but stately; I could have done with a bit more excitement. Even though Höhenrieder has quite visibly aged since the first concerto was recorded a dozen years earlier, she has lost nothing in her technique, which continues just as fluid and powerful as ever. The second movement piano entrance is achingly beautiful. Höhenrieder provides deep meaning and sensitivity to quite simple descending figures, infusing them with great emotion. Only in this concert do the camera operators provide a self-conscious shot of the pianist reflected in the raised piano lid.
Throughout these presentations, one is constantly drawn to the amazing camera work. At least half a dozen camera operators are involved in each of these concerts, but they are never visible, and the editing always makes the view relevant. The cutting is never boring but also is not so frenetic as to distract from the music. The changes of shot are always natural and in service to the music. For live performances, the black levels are decently high. The audiences in the first four concertos are suitably quiet throughout, with no coughing or rattling of programs.
Each of the concertos except the Second includes a bonus featurette of Höhenrieder discussing the concerto with the respective conductor. All told, there is over an hour of such additional discussions. The first couple of these lean heavily on rehearsal footage and are not all that interesting. As we get to the last two featurettes, however, the artists open up more about the meaning they see in the pieces and what they are attempting to achieve. The featurette for the Fifth includes an especially interesting discussion of the autograph of the piece, which indicates the second movement is meant to be played “alla breve” or in cut time. Most performances are thus far too slow, and have the wrong pulse; however, one certainly cannot argue with the results as they are heard here.
The three discs are accompanied by a 42-page illustrated booklet with further interviews with Höhenrieder, presented in German, English and French.
Mark S. Zimmer
Picture format: 720p, 16:9 anamorphic widescreen enhanced for widescreen televisions
Sound format: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region Code: Region free
Subtitle languages: German, English, French, Spanish