December 26, 2019
(++++) DECIDING WHAT COUNTS
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano; Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0”-5; Triple Concerto; Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6; Variations and Fugue in E-flat, Op. 35 (“Eroica”). Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Berlin Classics. $27.99 (4 CDs).
The most prominent number in classical-music circles during 2020 is sure to be 250: it is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. And the flood of Beethoven releases and re-releases is already well under way, with several “complete works” sets released or planned as well as any number of productions of music both highly familiar and less-known. To stand out from the huge crowd of newly issued performances – not to mention the tremendous number of releases of Beethoven’s music available long before the 250th-anniversary year – recordings need something special, even gimmicky. Excellent performances alone are not enough: the quality of playing of Beethoven’s music has been remarkably high for many years now, and pretty much any reading of his well-known music will be more than adequate. That means listeners who already may have several recordings of his better-known works – and who certainly have one – need to pick and choose among newly offered material based on factors ranging from “special-ness” of some sort to price. The two-SACD set of the piano concertos from BIS, featuring Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens, is expensive, but it ranks high on the “special” scale for the excellence with which the performers bring forth the concertos as Beethoven expected them to sound. Brautigam plays Paul McNulty reproductions of two different fortepianos, one based on a Walter & Sohn instrument from about 1805 (for the first three concertos) and one modeled on a Conrad Graf instrument from about 1819 (for the fourth and fifth). The sound of the two keyboard instruments is very different – this is one way in which fortepianos, like harpsichords but unlike many modern pianos, colored music in very different ways. The Walter & Sohn instrument, for example, had knee pedals only, while the Conrad Graf had the foot pedals familiar from later instruments – but it had four of them, including not only a moderator but also a double moderator. The tonal colorations available to fortepianists help balance the comparatively modest (to modern ears) sound of their instruments, and lead to readings of period music that can be very highly nuanced when handled with the care and sensitivity that Brautigam lavishes on them here. And speaking of “period music,” Die Kölner Akademie is a period-instrument ensemble, and an excellent one – and has previously collaborated with Brautigam on a number of fine recordings, notably of Mozart concertos. Willens leads the group through the Beethoven cycle in very fine form indeed, highlighting the Mozartean elements of the first two concertos, the transitional nature of the third (whose minor-key structure comes directly from Mozart but whose handling of the piano looks toward the future), and the significantly expanded communicative elements of the fourth and fifth – which sound both fuller and more dramatic on the later-model fortepiano. Especially effective in this set is the second movement of the fourth concerto, whose dramatic back-and-forth between soloist and ensemble offers just the right balance for an argument whose structure is genuinely new in a piano concerto and whose resolution in something like comity is handled with poise and elegance. On the surface, the music here is entirely familiar, but it sounds so different in these performances from what is usual today that the recording shines new light on Beethoven by offering readings whose sound is as close as possible to what the composer expected and what his initial audiences would have heard.
Listeners who think of “Beethoven’s five piano concertos” are of course thinking about the five played by Brautigam and most pianists. But Beethoven in fact wrote eight-and-a-half piano concertos, including a very early one that has not survived and a much later one that he started after the “Emperor” but on which he did not make much progress. In terms of his seven playable concertos, in addition to the ones numbered 1-5, there is the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, which sounds quite fine as a keyboard piece and includes an unusual first-movement cadenza in which the piano is accompanied by timpani, in a clever recollection and expansion of the movement’s opening bars. And there is also a concerto by young-teenage Beethoven, dating to 1784 and assigned the number WoO 4, that predates No. 2 (the first of the five numbered ones to be composed) by about five years. A new Berlin Classics release featuring the excellent wife-and-husband musical team of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano makes this early concerto the focal point of a four-disc set of performances dating as far back as 2006 – although the recording of “No. 0,” as it is called here, was made as recently as May 2019. The set is well-priced in part because it is something of a hodgepodge of recording dates, and because Nos. 1-5 and the Triple Concerto were previously released in these exact performances in 2014. But far from there being anything here for which Kodama, Nagano or the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin should be apologetic, the entire release is filled with excellent (although not particularly historically informed) performances. Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, handled with verve and intelligence, are the best of the standard set of five here: Nos. 1 and 2 have a bit of unnecessary rubato now and then, and No. 3 gets a somewhat surface-level interpretation, although all the concertos are very well played by both soloist and orchestra. This release is, in fact, something of a treasure trove of Beethoven’s piano concertos and related works. In addition to the five usual concertos – in readings that offer nothing particularly revelatory but much that is highly skilled and sensitively presented – and the “No. 0,” there are ancillary works that shed considerable light on the main concerto sequence. “No. 0” is no slouch of a concerto: it is derivative, yes, and to a greater extent than No. 1 or No. 2, but it is filled with fresh, well-thought-through ideas, and has a degree of lightness and almost-humor that is largely absent from later, more-mature Beethoven. It is comparable in length to No. 2, if stylistically less individual, but in one significant way it presages later Beethoven: it is in E-flat, a key that was to be enormously significant to his music. To show just how significant, this recording includes Kodama’s performance of the “Eroica” variations in the same key – which is the key, of course, of the “Eroica” symphony as well. Somehow E-flat was already assuming considerable importance to Beethoven even when he created that very early piano concerto. And this set contains another “early thoughts” piece as well: the Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6, which Beethoven originally planned as the finale of his Concerto No. 2. Once again, the piece itself is quite well-made, and it shows a slightly different direction for the concerto’s conclusion from the one on which Beethoven ultimately decided. These Beethovenian byways are complemented in this release by the Triple Concerto, in which Kodama is ably if somewhat timidly partnered by Kolja Blacher and Johannes Moser. This concerto dates to about the same time as No. 3 in C minor – and because it is in C major, it offers an interesting juxtaposition (the two are presented on the same CD in this set). Kodama tends to dominate the playing a bit too much: Beethoven deliberately downplayed the role of the piano in this concerto and brought forth the significance of the cello. The result is a rather pallid performance, although all three soloists play with considerable skill. This is a set for listeners interested in some offbeat elements of Beethoven’s work and some items heard quite rarely but presented here in a way that increases understanding of Beethoven’s development in the piano-and-orchestra realm. That is not to say that this set is “complete” in any way: it omits both the piano version of the Violin Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, with its extensive and crucial piano part. But for what it does contain, and for the quality with which the material is handled, this is a release that is worthy of inclusion in the 250th-anniversary celebration, and one that many lovers of Beethoven will be happy to own.