January 20, 2022


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4—transcriptions for piano and string quintet. Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Utrecht String Quartet (Eeva Koskinen and Katherine Routley, violins; Mikhail Zemtsov, viola; Sebastian Koloski, cello); Luis Cabrera, double bass. Naxos. $11.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 2—transcriptions for piano and string quintet (Concerto) and for string trio (Symphony). Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Animato String Quartet (Floor Le Coultre and Tim Brackman, violins; Elisa Karen Tavenier, viola; Pieter de Koe, cello); Bas Vliegenthart, double bass. Naxos. $11.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5—transcriptions for piano and string quintet. Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Animato String Quartet (Inga VÃ¥ga Gaustad and Tim Brackman, violins; Elisa Karen Tavenier, viola; Pieter de Koe, cello); Bas Vliegenthart, double bass. Naxos. $13.99.

     This is a fascinating foray into Beethoven’s piano concertos and also, truth be told, a rather weird one. The musical moving force here, and one of the few consistencies in the three Naxos CDs, is pianist Hanna Shybayeva, who is interested in exploring some lesser-known nooks and crannies of the musical past. These transcriptions certainly qualify. They result primarily from a collaboration between Sigmund Lebert (1821-1884), a well-thought-of pianist and pedagogue, and composer Vinzenz Lachner (1811-1893) – whose brother Ignaz (1807-1895) is remembered for chamber arrangements of a number of Mozart’s piano concertos. Those arrangements, and the ones of Beethoven heard on these discs, are very much of their mid-to-late-19th-century time: music lovers wanted to hear great works, recordings did not exist, and full-scale performances were infrequent and often inconveniently located – but the piano was developing rapidly, becoming increasingly popular in many homes, and private performances by string players (families and friends) were well-established (much of Schubert’s music was written for just such get-togethers). These circumstances paved the way for accurate, if simplified, versions of works such as Beethoven’s piano concertos – versions that could also be used as study scores by aspiring pianists.

     The Lebert/V. Lachner concerto transcriptions were created in this environment, but have had virtually no existence outside it: these recordings are their first ones. As musical tastes changed, full-scale performances became more widely accessible, and audiences came to know works in their original orchestrations, transcriptions such as these fell by the wayside. And that is a bit of a shame, as these well-played and well-paced performances show, because while the transcriptions are certainly pale versions of the original concertos, they possess a level of clarity and lightness that makes them worthwhile to hear on their own and that also shows elements of the concertos’ structure quite clearly and to very good effect. A guidepost for all this is the transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 included on the disc containing Piano Concerto No. 1. The symphony transcription was made by Beethoven himself, and for the highly limited instrumental complement of piano trio. The challenges of doing this are obvious, yet Beethoven clearly found the piano-trio instrumentation adequate (if not ideal) for this symphony, despite the work’s seriousness and comparatively large scale (well beyond that of No. 1 although not close to that of No. 3, the “Eroica”). Hearing Shybayeva and members of the Animato Quartet play the symphony as a trio is a genuinely refreshing experience: certainly Beethoven knew precisely how he wanted the symphony to communicate, exactly which musical lines he wanted emphasized, and how he could assign the non-string portions of the score to a piano trio. Obviously this version does not hold the proverbial candle to the orchestral one in terms of scope, fullness of sound, or use of orchestral sections. But it is fascinating to hear the symphony in this guise, and to know, thanks to this skeletal-but-elegant version of the work, just how Beethoven himself saw the crucial and less-crucial elements of the score.

     The pleasures are analogous but different in the Lebert/V. Lachner arrangements, created decades after Beethoven’s death. Although designed for student or family performance, the concertos as heard here are not minimized in complexity or compromised in style: the transcribers retain the piano part (which is expanded in some places to incorporate some of the material originally written for orchestra), and the orchestral material is sensitively apportioned among the five string instruments, with the inclusion of double bass giving the music more heft than it would otherwise have.

     Because the transcriptions were designed for in-home or student use, the specific performers are less important than might otherwise be the case. But the performer element is a part of the oddity of this generally admirable set of discs. The musicians are all based or trained in the Netherlands and are all more than equal to their parts. But the actual sound of the CDs lacks consistency, not because of recording technology but because of inherent differences in the way chamber groups play together and the way their particular instruments interact. And the release sequence of the three CDs is itself hard to fathom. The first disc includes the third and fourth concertos, with Shybayeva accompanied by the Utrecht String Quartet. The second CD has the first concerto plus Beethoven’s trio arrangement of Symphony No. 2, and here Shybayeva plays with the Animato String Quartet. The third CD includes Piano Concertos No. 2 (actually the first to be written) and No. 5 (the last one created); here the quartet has the same name as on the second disc but a different complement of players. There is thus a certain feeling of hodgepodge about this whole project, which is a shame.

     Turning to the discs’ booklets for explanation does not help, and in fact confuses matters further. The three 16-page booklets are arranged differently, give different amounts of attention to the music vs. the performers, are differently laid out, and are inconsistent (and even inaccurate) in some particulars: for example, the first two refer to “the famous Cotta edition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos,” while the third uses the same language but says “piano sonatas.” And this is not a matter of mistranslation, although the translation from German is inelegant at best, since the same translator is responsible for all the English versions of the notes.

     It is unfortunate that these three discs, taken together, produce an overall feeling of sloppiness or simply lack of caring in the production of the music, because the music itself is definitely worthy of being heard, even at a time when performances of the original versions of the concertos and Symphony No. 2 are ubiquitous and readily available (and a time when at-home amateur chamber-music gatherings are extremely rare). The Lebert/V. Lachner concerto transcriptions are a part of music history, perhaps little more than a footnote in it, but they are interesting in their own right as well as in the way they make it possible to hear Beethoven’s piano concertos with, as it were, a different set of ears.

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