Top Ear

Barenboim’s Beethoven for All: The Piano Concertos

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Jeremy Lee writes

Beethoven’s piano concertos have been staples of the concerto repertoire.  As such the market is flooded with great recordings of the pieces, and entering such a crowded market means that any new recording should have enough merits to hold any interest to discerning listeners.  Decca, as part of conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim’s ongoing “humanitarian” recording project called Beethoven For All, has released this set of piano concertos taken from live performances in 2007, making this release Barenboim’s fourth recording of the works, having played the piano part under Klemperer for EMI, conducted for Rubinstein, and performed double-duty with the Berlin Philharmonic.   Barenboim of course knows these works inside-out, and that long-cultivated relationship should show in this fourth go–the product of over 40 years of trial, testing, and transformation.

I must at once admit that before I had acquired this set I knew little, if not nothing, about Beethoven’s piano concertos (excepting the 3rd, which I have heard many times and loved tremendously).  Nevertheless, it became apparent within a few minutes of listening that Barenboim has lavished fastidious care on the minutest of details in the score and pondered over every note he played, with the grading between tone, articulation and dynamics clearly defined.  A quick comparison with Argerich’s recent live recording of the 3rd with Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra shows Barenboim’s weightier, more ponderous approach to the piano part, entirely symphonic in conception, while Argerich treats the piano part more rhapsodically, showing more concern with the linearity and sleekness of the melodic lines.  The Staatskapelle Berlin, moreover, sounds richer and more concentrated, while Abbado’s accompaniment tends to sound unfocused and less “together”.

That attention to detail, however, is not insofar as it sounds micromanaged.  Take orchestral balance as a case in point:  Barenboim places the woodwinds and timpani forwards and the brass backwards, achieving a natural and equal blending of different timbre.  Barenboim’s playing, while detail-laden and even slightly heavy-handed, does not sound mannered or clumsy:  what it may lack in excitement or freshness it more than makes up for in Barenboim’s thoughtfulness and masterful grasp of Beethoven’s intentions.  It almost seems as though Barenboim intended every note as an event to attach musical meaning to.  And the Staatskapelle Berlin responds congenially to each and every of Barenboim’s nuances, whether while conducting, or on the piano.

Sonically, it’s essentially a realistic-sounding picture, rich in the bass (especially those timpani!) and slightly dry.  The piano tone is full if not sonorous, and the natural balances are well caught.  The audience meanwhile is tremendously well-behaved:  impressive, really, considering that it was performed in something akin to an aircraft hangar.

This set, then, is a prudent, well-thought-through approach to Beethoven’s major masterworks for piano and orchestra, and while such an approach may swing the vote in favour of sets by Fleisher and Arrau, there’s no denying that this set deserves our respectful attention.

Footnote:  Despite the recording’s live provenance, nowhere in the booklet, on the box, disc, or cardboard inserts does it say “live recording”, “recorded live in concert” or anything signifying that a live audience was present.  If you listen closely, however, you may be able to detect some spluttering or shifting between movements, and at the end of every concerto the engineers leave out a good few seconds of applause.  In fact this 2007 live recording is actually the soundtrack of the EuroArts DVD entitled “Beethoven:  Piano Concertos 1-5”, and further comparisons of the CD and the DVD verified this.  I detected the live provenance only after the applause at the end of the 3rd concerto and was rather surprised, and while this discovery did not diminish the musical value of the set itself, Decca’s dishonesty (or neglectful ignorance) serves as a warning to labels how NOT to ignore such an important piece of information.

Details

  • Album name:  Beethoven for All:  The Piano Concertos
  • Performers:  Daniel Barenboim (piano and conductor);  Staatskapelle Berlin
  • Label:  Decca 478 3515
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  CD1:  68:47;  CD2:  73:43;  CD3:  40:47
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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