Recording Review - Beethoven Piano Concertos 1 & 3 - The Music Trust

Reviewed by Gordon Kerry - The Music Trust

“A fine Australian ensemble takes a fresh look at two Beethoven concertos.”

There is a no doubt completely apocryphal but mildly amusing story about a rehearsal where a visiting star pianist, after the usual introduction to the orchestra, sat down at the piano and nodded and smiled at the conductor who nodded and smiled back and after some minutes of increasingly awkward nodding and smiling – but no actual rehearsing – it dawned on someone that the pianist thought they were to play Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and was politely waiting for a blast of E flat major that would launch the piano’s heroic cascades, whereas the conductor, no doubt equally politely, was expecting the piano to begin the gentle G major ruminations that open the Fourth Concerto.

This screamingly amusing anecdote points to the way in which Beethoven constantly sought new ways to launch the dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The piano concerto, as Megan Lang points out in the notes to this new release, was a still-new genre; Mozart had been its greatest proponent in late 18thcentury Vienna and had developed a strategy based, distantly, in Baroque forms for his opening movements, where a substantial orchestral ritornello introduces a substantial response from the soloist. Mozart would occasionally break his own ‘rules’, of course, as in the Concerto K.271 – like the ‘Emperor’, in E flat – where the dialogue immediately consists of periods a mere bar or two long. But what almost any composer of a concerto is searching for is a way of making the relationship between soloist and orchestra a dramatic one, and this exercised Beethoven in all of his piano concertos.

Beethoven’s C major concerto, Op.15, is of course a late 18th century work in the mould of Haydn, perhaps, rather than Mozart, but a late classical work either way. And while Beethoven mentioned to his publisher that neither of the first two concertos were ‘amongst my best work’, they were well designed to show off his own considerable gifts as a pianist. We may not hear how the C major work might have sounded radical in its day, but though Vienna’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung claimed the work ‘contains many beautiful things’ it went on to say that in Beethoven’s music ‘there was too much use of wind instruments, so that it sounded more like a wind band than an orchestra’. (To be fair, though, the orchestra played badly. ‘In the accompaniments they did not take the trouble to consider the soloist. Of delicacy in accompanying, of following the sequence of the feelings of the solo player and so forth, not the slightest trace.’ So who knows – the wind might have been the more competent section.) Beethoven, then, might well have approved of the idea of transcribing these concertos for chamber group, as presented here by the Australian Haydn Ensemble, if only in the interests of safety.

The C minor work, Op.37, dates from 1800-01, the years of the crisis detailed in Beethoven’s 1803 ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, and while it is dangerous to read biographical meaning into abstract music, we have to admit that the rhetoric and scale of this work put it in a completely different ballpark from the slender C major concerto. We do know that Beethoven famously exclaimed to a friend that ‘You and I will never be able to do anything like that!’ when they sat in on a rehearsal of Mozart’s Concerto in C minor, K.491, but here he gives it his best shot. The piece premiered, under no more auspicious circumstances than the earlier work’s, in 1802 with Beethoven at the keyboard.

C minor is Beethoven’s pathétique key – that is the key in which he frequently essays the idea of tragedy, found in Schiller, as heroic forbearance in the face of suffering. It is probably fair to say, though, that after the foreboding of the minor-key introduction to this work Beethoven in fact spends a lot of time away from the home key, venturing into the major as soon as he can, and indeed casting his slow movement in a remote E major. It is an altogether more ambitious work, and one that arguably doesn’t always meet its own goals. A transitional piece, it maintains the ritornello/introduction, a fine piece of writing in Beethoven’s ‘C minor mood’, but with almost too much thematic potential. It is as if Beethoven had started writing a symphonic first movement, and then remembers, as the introduction comes to its emphatic cadence, that he has to do something with the solo piano. In performance, of course, this may be an occasion for great drama as a fully formed symphonic statement is swept away by the ebullience of the piano’s entrance. (It is telling, however, that in revising the piece Beethoven is said to have simplified certain overly virtuosic passages; the weightiness of the material, while still cast as a drama between antagonists, must not become mere ornament.) The ‘overuse’, as the AMZ critic saw it, of the winds is even more apparent in the scoring of the Third Concerto, where orchestral sound is even more intrinsic to the work’s rhetoric, balancing Beethoven’s ability, as Czerny put it, to ‘draw effects from the piano such as we couldn’t even allow ourselves to dream about.’

There is a long history of cut-down versions of orchestral works, and certain concertos of, say, Mozart and Chopin, do well enough as piano quintets. Here, the Australian Haydn Ensemble performs the C major and C minor works in chamber versions made by Sydney composer Vi King Lim. Lim, as the liner notes inform us, immersed himself in the music of two Italian composers of the early 19thcentury, who provided London audiences with chamber versions of various works of Beethoven, Mozart and others, often using the ensemble, as here, of flute and string sextet to accompany the piano. Lim’s ear and musical intelligence are formidable, and, realised by the estimable musicians of the AHE on instruments of the period, sound completely authentic. The C major work translates most easily, with its mixture of classical poise and Haydnish humour.

With such a small ensemble doing service for the orchestra, Lim uses the piano as a stiffener in louder tutti passages, which has the disadvantage of pulling the music’s punches somewhat. In the opening movements of both concertos, especially Op.37, Beethoven, as we have noted, sets the stage for the dramatic entrance of the soloist with longish orchestral introductions, whereas here we are presented with piano sonority straight up. Naturally there are times where, even using the piano for heft, the ensemble can’t match the power of a full orchestral gesture – this is most noticeable in the Third Concerto where Beethoven channels the extreme dynamics of CPE Bach’s empfindsamer Stil and there are orchestral touches which one misses – the horn writing at the end of a central reflective section of the C minor’s first movement (around the seven minute mark), for instance, despite its deft translation into string sonority, or a lovely clarinet line that somehow doesn’t sound the same on the flute. And very occasionally even Melissa Farrow’s heroic attempts to make a single flute sound like a wind section don’t quite come off, though in the main, and thanks to Lim’s clever voicing, that usually works remarkably well. There are passages where the music invites a chamber treatment, such as in the C major concerto’s slow movement where there is some beautiful interplay between Peres Da Costa and leader Skye McIntosh’s solo violin, while on the other the hand the C major concerto’s slow movement contains playing that convincingly evokes the larger band. Most importantly, there are many moments where the arrangement produces its own unique beauties, such as the limpid textures around six minutes into the C minor’s final rondo.

Peres Da Costa is a distinguished scholar as well as the subtle and expressive pianist we hear on this disc, and his insights into performance practice are a further incentive to contemplate these performances. The results in some cases take some getting used to: tempos are sometimes treated with great elasticity – remembering, though, that Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries described the composer’s own changes of speed as ‘capricious’ but noted that they made a ‘beautiful and striking effect’. And where a tempo is perhaps slower than expected, like the C minor rondo finale, Peres Da Costa compensates, and creates a sense of expectation, by a very slight hesitation after the upbeat of the main material’s first motif – a danger being that it can begin to sound mannered. I also couldn’t help wondering about some aspects of the articulation – though naturally defer to a scholar with much greater knowledge of the subject than me. The C minor Rondo, for instance begins with a motif of five quavers: an upbeat, followed by two slurred and two staccato. As in Peres Da Costa’s Brahms recording with Ironwood (which I reviewed for this site), staccatos are much less marked than they might be in ‘modern’ interpretations, or indeed, earlier ‘original instrument’ performances of this music.

Though much is taken, much abides, and while we might miss Beethoven’s growing mastery of orchestral sonority as part of his musical rhetoric and dramatic armoury, these performances are true to the essence of his structural, melodic and rhythmic invention. They have much to reveal about the works, and are a terrific document of the musical prowess of the individuals that make up this fine ensemble.