September 29, 2022


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0”-7; Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6. Michael Korstick, piano; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantin Trinks. CPO. $33.99 (4 CDs).

     The canonic Beethoven Five Piano Concertos are, it seems, less and less likely to be deemed a complete set nowadays. The composer’s own adaptation of the Violin Concerto, with its fascinating timpani-accompanied first-movement cadenza, has moved from being a curiosity into a much more mainstream work. The original B-flat rondo written for what is now known as Concerto No. 2 (the first of the “canonic” group to be written, but the second to be published) turns up with increasing frequency. The 1784 concerto in E-flat has been given the number “0” and is accepted with that designation in much the same way that Bruckner’s Symphony No. “0” has gained widespread acknowledgment. And Beethoven’s last foray into the piano-concerto realm, a substantial (70-page) but incomplete fragment in D that was first recorded by Sophie-Mayuko Vetter on a fortepiano after being rendered performable through the efforts of Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant, serves as a fascinating what-might-have-been exploration of Beethoven’s pianistic thinking after the “Emperor” concerto. (For that matter, the solo-piano and piano-and-orchestra elements of the Triple Concerto and Choral Fantasy represent yet more in this realm.)

     The increasing acceptance of Beethoven as the composer of more than five piano concertos has, unsurprisingly, produced a certain level of dispute and confusion about everything from the choice of keyboard instrument to the numbering of the non-canonic concerto material. For a new four-CD CPO release, Michael Korstick and Constantin Trinks follow Carl Czerny in referring to the arrangement of the Violin Concerto as “Piano Concerto No. 7,” a designation that might seem reasonable if it were not for the fact that Czerny called the Triple Concerto No. 4 among the piano concertos – so the G major concerto invariably referred to as No. 4 became, for Czerny, No. 5, and the “Emperor” was labeled No. 6. The Kostick/Trinks recording rather confusingly retains the “No. 7” designation for the violin-concerto arrangement and uses “No. 6” to refer to the D major fragment from 1815 – in that respect following the Vetter recording’s numbering for the fragment, except that Vetter’s CD (on the Oehms label) did not include the violin-concerto arrangement and could therefore dodge the whole “what number is it?” issue.

     Korstick plays the entirety of his cycle on a modern grand piano, a historically inaccurate decision that nevertheless represents by far the most common approach to the Beethoven piano-and-orchestra output. Korstick has clearly thought carefully about the best way to handle the varying approaches and moods of these works – in fact, he has made revisions of his own to the D major fragment to make it, in his estimation, more playable and more in line with what Beethoven might have done if he had finished the concerto (or even the single movement). Everything Korstick does is pianistically sound, and the 1815 fragment contains a number of intriguing elements – although they would probably not have survived in this form if Beethoven had finished the piece, just as the few sketches of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 would almost certainly not have remained in their existing form if the work had been completed.

     Korstick and Trinks present all the concertos intelligently. The first three discs are given over to the “canonic five” and the arrangement of the Violin Concerto – which is placed between Nos. 4 and 5, where it belongs based on its opus number and date of composition. The fourth disc functions as a sort of appendix, including the 1784 concerto, the B-flat Rondo WoO 6, and the 1815 fragment. This is a reasonable approach to the expanded canon and provides a fine opportunity to engage with the music chronologically while also exploring the less-often-heard “byways” traveled by Beethoven in this instrumental combination. The performances themselves are uniformly well-done and carefully considered: Korstick is a thoughtful pianist, and Trinks and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra provide him with clear, well-balanced support throughout. Korstick does not hesitate to put his own imprimatur on the less-often-heard works in the set: he had Hermann Dechant, the same musicologist who helped create a playable version of the 1815 fragment, produce a new orchestration for Concerto No. “0,” which was originally orchestrated by Willy Hess – Beethoven’s orchestral parts have not survived. Dechant’s orchestration is more forward-looking than the one by Hess, notably by its inclusion of bassoons throughout in addition to the flutes and horns that would be typical for the time – and the use of trumpets and timpani in the finale. The result is somewhat grander than really fits a work by the 14-year-old Beethoven – although the unusual difficulty of the piano part, which Beethoven probably created to showcase his own performance capabilities, does seem to invite a degree of surface-level gloss.

     There are many very fine recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos, most usually sticking to the five-concerto group, but an increasing number including at least some ancillary piano-and-orchestra material. The Korstick/Trinks release does not offer historically informed performances, although Korstick is careful not to over-romanticize his readings. Taken as a whole, this is a well-paced, well-thought-out set that handles the canonic concertos with skill and sensitivity and offers the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge and enjoyment of Beethoven’s piano-and-orchestra music by including additional items that are less often heard, even if no longer entirely obscure.

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