June 04, 2020
(++++) A BLEND OF THE HIGHEST QUALITY
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 5 and 6 (arrangement of Violin Concerto); Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Inon Barnatan, piano; Lydia Teuscher and Amy Lyddon, sopranos; Rosie Aldridge, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence and Ben Bavan, tenors; Neal Davies, baritone; London Voices and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Alan Gilbert. PentaTone. $24.99 (2 CDs).
It is a bit surprising that PentaTone chose to package Inon Barnatan’s Beethoven piano-concerto cycle as two separate releases separated by half a year, rather than as a single boxed offering; but listeners who were understandably enthusiastic about the first two-CD set (which included Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 and the Triple Concerto) will be glad that the wait for the second dual-disc release is now over. The decision of what music to include in which release is a bit strange: this time, listeners get No. 2, the first-composed in the usual cycle of five (although earlier whole and partial concertos also exist); No. 5, the last-composed in the standard cycle; a very welcome performance of the composer’s infrequently heard arrangement of his Violin Concerto; and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra (“Choral Fantasy”), which includes substantial material for the piano even though it is scarcely a traditional concerto (or, for that matter, a traditional anything-else: it is a work in genuinely original form). As in the earlier Barnatan release, the pianist plays, when appropriate, with care and transparency that recall Leon Fleisher’s justly renowned recordings from the mid-1960s. Also as before, Alan Gilbert conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – which has never recorded a Beethoven concerto cycle before – with a welcome mixture of precision and balance.
Concerto No. 2 is closest in its effect to the works in the earlier Barnatan/Gilbert recording: poised, elegant, Mozartian in its mixture and balance of soloist and ensemble, and generally delicate despite some appropriately forceful passages. This is a performance that places Beethoven firmly in the Classical period but at the same time shows the ways in which he was moving beyond the Mozartian model. And Barnatan’s handling of the “Emperor” concerto shows that he and Gilbert know that lightness and delicacy have their limits – although clarity does not. The magisterial opening of Concerto No. 5 is certainly grand enough, and the music’s smooth flow after the initial flourishes is accentuated just strongly enough. The details of Barnatan’s playing – the clarity of trills, the carefully controlled use of rubato – successfully accentuate the strongly rhythmic elements of the first movement, nicely balancing its emphatic, “imperial” elements with its warmer, more-flowing ones. This manages to be a powerful, insistent opening movement without being one that overpowers the remainder of the concerto, despite being longer than the second and third movements combined. It is also a highly cooperative first movement: the care with which Barnatan and Gilbert intermingle is notable throughout. So matters also are in the second movement, whose opening theme is presented by the orchestra with all the beauty and grace needed to provide respite after the first movement’s bold conclusion. Barnatan picks up his part in the same spirit and delivers a performance whose pleasantly relaxing nature contrasts quite appropriately with the spirit of the first movement. And then comes a third-movement opening that instantly fires up the spirits – this is a bold, bright conclusion that stands as a worthy balance to the first movement despite being only half its length. Barnatan again recalls Fleisher in the dramatic contrast between his handling of the strongly accentuated portions of the piano part and the less-ebullient periods of relaxation. The momentum of this movement never flags, and Barnatan, ably abetted throughout by Gilbert, presents it with a level of jubilation underlined by seriousness of purpose that makes for a thoroughly involving listening experience.
Some of the special characteristics that Barnatan and Gilbert bring to the “Emperor” also appear in their handling of the arrangement of the Violin Concerto – another work whose first movement is longer and more elaborate than its second and third combined. Here, it is Barnatan’s poise that comes to the fore: this is a lovely, gently flowing interpretation that makes no attempt to be particularly virtuosic – which the piano part is not. There is a sylvan quality to Barnatan’s and Gilbert’s interpretation of this concerto, an idealized and idyllic bucolic expressiveness that allows the music to flow gently and pleasantly, without any of the intensity of the “Emperor.” Gilbert’s delicacy in the orchestral accompaniment is especially welcome here: the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has plenty of power when it is called for, but it excels in the quieter, warmer passages of the concerto. There is a companionable feeling to the music-making here, with Barnatan being more of a “first among equals” than a dominating soloist. This stance fits the music quite well. And when Barnatan does have a chance to get some front-and-center attention – notably in the first movement’s cadenza, whose memorable inclusion of timpani neatly recalls and expands upon the concerto’s unusual opening – he conveys a real sense of enjoyment of the music, playing with panache mixed with sheer joy that, unusually and memorably, brings out a sense of humor as well as virtuosity in the give-and-take. And then the quiet post-cadenza re-entry of the orchestra supplies a touch of magic. After this, the lilting and lovely second movement takes on the character of an intermezzo, while the finale has more of a celebratory air than it usually receives, with some of the playfulness of the first-movement cadenza returning – being particularly audible in the interplay of soloist and ensemble. In all, Barnatan and Gilbert make an exceptionally good case for regarding this arrangement as a genuine piano concerto with a character of its own – even though, musically speaking, it differs little (except in the cadenzas) from the violin work from which it is derived.
After all this, the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra makes a marvelous conclusion to an outstanding cycle. This fantasy was always intended as musical dessert of a sort: Beethoven already had on hand the orchestra, the chorus, and the pianist (himself) to present this work as the conclusion of a long-famous four-hour concert. So it is an occasional work – that is, written for a specific occasion – and has suffered considerable neglect over the years because it does not quite fit into any precise musical form and requires considerable performing forces for a brief time (the chorus sings for about three minutes out of 20). But the fantasy is highly innovative in many ways, not only as a way station on the road to the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony (whose last-movement theme is used in the fantasy and was previously used elsewhere by the composer, who obviously found it worth returning to again and again). And it is really a joy to hear when performed with enthusiasm and without the somewhat dour seriousness that tends to infect some performances of Beethoven’s music (definitely including the Ninth Symphony). The three-minute solo-piano opening – improvised by Beethoven at the fantasy’s first performance – is full of vigor and a kind of splendor as Barnatan presents it. Gilbert and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields present the orchestral material with bright insistence and provide Barnatan with the same pervasive sense of camaraderie that comes across again and again throughout this cycle. And although the words sung by members of the London Voices are scarcely great poetry, what matters is not the verse but what it celebrates: music and all the arts, and the way artists connect humans to a higher plane of existence. That is a hopeful and exhilarating thought more than 200 years after the fantasy was first performed. Whatever words may be used to express such a sentiment are worth hearing, and the performers here sing the material expressively and with heartfelt enthusiasm, producing a conclusion to the Barnatan/Gilbert cycle that honors the entire release and, more to the point, pays suitable tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.