Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, 'Emperor'
Piano Concerto No. 0, in E flat major, WoO 4
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019/20, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK; Fazioli Concert Hall, Facile, Italy
NAXOS 8.574153 
One can easily feel jaded about works such as Beethoven’s so-called ‘Emperor’ Concerto. We have known them for so long, and heard them so many times. This is why I decided to try and listen to this performance as if I had never heard it before – not an easy task. It is a mark of the quality of the reading that I very quickly forgot my plan and preferred just to listen and enjoy. And enjoy I did. This is a most satisfying performance of a work one has known for years. I would guess a relatively restrained number of strings was employed, giving the winds considerable prominence, though those opening chords in no way lack power. Textures are clean and lean in the long orchestral tutti, with figuration in the accompanying passages clear and precise. Rhythm and accents are spot-on, and dynamics as marked in the score are followed closely. These attributes are duplicated once Giltburg takes over. His technique throughout the work is faultless, his control of phrasing and dynamics masterly. It is playing that is both alive to tradition – so many great pianists have tackled the work: he has surely heard and studied many of them – and at the same time quite individual. There is a lightness of touch about his playing that is refreshing and satisfying. A splendid accelerando in the lead-in to the cadenza sounds like a nod in the direction of Beethovenian humour, a quality I find frequently overlooked in Beethoven’s music.
The vibrato-light playing of the superb string section at the opening of the slow movement suggests that the performance has been prepared with period practice in mind. The atmosphere in this passage is, none the less, a subtly romantic one, which Giltburg once again underlines at his entry. Restful tranquillity is eventually disturbed by the fateful, downward semitone step that leads into the finale. The orchestra’s treatment of the main theme is dry and abrupt, in contrast with the soloist from whom choice has been removed by the composer’s insistence on using the pedal. It is here, especially, that the listener remarks on the dexterity of Giltburg’s left hand playing, splendidly delicate and hugely powerful in turn. Listen out, also, for the deft manner in which he inserts those frequent ‘extra’ notes in the running right hand passages in this movement.
Times have changed and interpretations of Beethoven’s concertos have evolved. We are a world away here from Serkin with Bernstein (Sony), the only conductor in my experience to make a crescendo on the opening chords. (I love that performance, however.) This is not a barnstorming ‘Emperor’, but one that is, perhaps, a little ‘middle of the road’. It is a performance to enjoy and admire rather than to be surprised by, but one in which the character and individuality of the playing, from both soloist and orchestra, shine through. I believe that a music lover coming new to the work will be just as thrilled with it as I was – as we all were – so many years ago when we too heard it for the first time. This is reason enough to recommend this thoroughly engaging and enjoyable performance.
Is the reading of the ‘Emperor’ concerto sufficiently individual to encourage collectors who already have numerous accounts on their shelves? Looking at mine, the aforementioned Serkin is an experience not to be missed, as is Barenboim, older than his years, with Klemperer (Warner). Another favourite of mine is Yefim Bronfman (Arte Nova), though I think Petrenko gets playing of greater character from his superb Liverpool players than did David Zinman in Zurich. In the present case the coupling might well decide the matter. The idea of a Piano Concerto No. 0 is intriguing. The work was composed when Beethoven was 13, but the orchestral score has been lost, leaving only the solo part that also includes a reduction of the orchestral part when the soloist is not playing. Boris Giltburg has elected to play the work from this score, so what we have is a kind of concerto with no orchestra. This works well enough, the only really strange passage occurring in the first movement when the soloist would have played the cadenza – improvised by the young Beethoven and reimagined by Giltburg here – with the accustomed trills to herald the return of an orchestra that never arrives. I was expecting the work to sound like Mozart, but it doesn’t, not really. Giltburg is a fine advocate for the work, both in the performance and in a fine and very readable booklet note where he invokes Johann Christian Bach as a possible influence. ‘The highlight of the concerto is, for me, the second movement’, he writes, and I agree with him. The finale he describes as ‘unbridled fun. No great depth here’, and I agree with him there too. The work is a pleasant listen, perhaps not much more than that. (Beethoven was only just a teenager, after all.) Giltburg clearly feels strongly that the work was worth reviving and his outstanding performance makes the very best case for it.
The recording team led by Andrew Keener provides us with superb sound, with a near-ideal balance between soloist and orchestra in the ‘Emperor’. The booklet is graced by a probing and eloquent note by Giltburg himself. He even launches into a discussion about whether we should really be calling Beethoven’s Op. 73 the ‘Emperor’ or not, but with a verbal dexterity that matches that of his fingers he does not come down on either side of the fence.
Previous review: Robert Cumming