Thursday, September 09, 2010

Beethoven's concertos

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the seventh instalment, I re-examine the concertos of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Widely seen as one of the three greatest composers ever, but in my own ranking he would not get higher than say #10-20 - with some of the crowd's favourites like the 9th symphony and Fuer Elise on my "to avoid" list. For this post I focus on his concertos.

My version: Ashkenazy/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solti (Decca, 1973, 29 min)
Published as the second, this was actually his first concerto (if we discount an unpublished youth work which has not survived intact), and his introduction to the Viennese audience. Continuing very much in the vein of Mozart and Haydn with little room for individualism. A competent first try, but not as good as Mozart's last 9-10 concertos, and a far cry from the major figure Beethoven was to become - and indeed, he himself labelled this one later as "not one of my best".

Piano concerto 1 in C major (op.15, 1797)
My version: Vladar/Capella Istropolitana/Wordsworth (Naxos, 1988, 35 min)
Although numbered #1, this was actually his second published concerto. A pleasant surprise to hear this one again, clearly building on the style of Mozart and Haydn and injecting a bit of Beethoven already, especially in the solo parts. The Largo is as beautiful as many of Mozart's slow movements, whilst the final is a playful rondo. A confident work, and one that would have been celebrated much more if it had been by a less well-known contemporary (say Hummel).

My version: Ashkenazy/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solti (Decca, 1973, 36 min)
Written at the same time as the second symphony to put it into perspective. Compared to the first two piano concertos, this is a highly individual work, with the ghosts of Mozart and Haydn firmly chased away. Perhaps the first real romantic piano concerto, in the sense that at places the piano seems to compete with the orchestra . The opening Allegro is upbeat and melodious, with a lengthy cadenza that goes through a range of emotions. The Largo opens with the piano solo, recalling some of his best piano sonata slow movements. The orchestral introduction is beautifully done to preserve the pastoral mood of one of the best movements he ever composed. The closing Rondo immediately introduces a wonderful happy melody on the piano, which Beethoven encounters with a relatively heavy orchestration, save for a graceful chance for the clarinet to shine. After a witty almost silent interlude, the movement's ending wraps it up confidently. One of my favourite Beethoven compositions, and one of my favourite piano concertos regardless of composer.

My version: Rosel,Funke,Timm/Dresdner Philharmonie/Kegel (Capriccio, 1987, 36 min)
This concerto for piano trio (piano, violin, cello) and orchestra still is almost unique in the classical music repertoire. Starting off with an Allegro that takes about half of the total playing time, and frankly never impresses me - even more astonishing as this is the time of his life where he composed his two outstanding symphonies (5 and 6), and his magnificent violin concerto. Perhaps the piano trio is simply not a suited concerto ensemble. The largo gives front stage to the violin and cello, with the piano subdued, and is a far better movement, but at 6 minutes no more than an introduction to the over long polonaise finale, which meanders along without reaching greatness anywhere. Wikipedia calls this concerto "polite entertainment" - a brilliant description.

My version: Ashkenazy/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solti (Decca, 1973, 35 min)
Right from the subdued opening for piano only, the somewhat over-long first movement, which takes over half of the concerto's playing time, goes through a series of emotions, with a confident poetic feeling dominating. The Andante continues in much the same vein at a slower pace, almost dream-like. All too soon, the final Rondo with its march-like theme sets in, but Beethoven reserve time for more poetic musing here as well. A strong concerto, although in the final ranking I still prefer the third.

My version: Grumiaux/Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Davis (Philips, 1974, 42 min)
Even more than with the 4th piano concerto, there is a substantial imbalance in the movements, the first typically lasting around 24 minutes. After a lengthy but brilliant orchestral introduction, which reminds one more of a symphony than a concerto, the soloist finally gets to play and does so with beautiful melodies. In spite of its length, a movement that keeps the listener speel bounf. After such an opening, a subdued larghetto (with some great horn play supporting the soloist) is indeed appropriate. All too soon the slow movement makes way to a final witty Rondo that is built around with one of his best joyful melodies (and unfortunately for Dutch listeners ruined forever by its use in a cheese commercial). One of the best violin concertos of all time, and just edging out the third piano concerto as the best concertante work Beethoven ever composed.

My version: Ashkenazy/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solti (Decca, 1973, 40 min)
The general audience's favourite. I beg to differ. The opening Allegro, again constituting half the concerto in terms of timing, with its immediate piano fireworks is far from subtle, but then the orchestra introduces a typical Beethoven symphonic sequence of sheer class. Also in the remainder of the first movement I find myself preferring the orchestral passages over the concertante parts in general - save for a tender passage of the piano around the 12 min mark. Only in the last five minutes , dominated by the famous march like theme, we get the brilliant interplay of piano and orchestra that one would aspect. The Adagio is of a pure reflective beauty, both orchestral and in the piano part - one of the best movements in all his concertos. The continuing Rondo is based on an excellent melodic theme that gives both orchestra and soloist the chance to shine. All in all, a great concerto, on par with the 4th, but just a nudge behind the 3d.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: none
Essential: Piano concerto 3, Violin concerto
Important: Piano concertos 4,5
Good to have: Piano concerto 1
Not required: Piano concerto 2, Triple concerto