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Beethoven: Piano Concertos No 1-5 / Aimard, Harnoncourt


Release Date: 05/20/2003 
Label:  Teldec   Catalog #: 47334   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 3 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Before listening to this set, I listened again to Harnoncourt’s set of the Beethoven symphonies (also on Teldec). It is a delightful cycle, full of felicitous music-making and free of both dogmatism and grand gesture-making. And it is this regard for the music as music that apparently brought conductor and soloist together—and they seem, at first blush, to be an unlikely pair: on the one hand, the “early music” specialist (though Harnoncourt disparages such reductive labeling), and on the other, the new music specialist, notable for his recordings of Messiaen. Not having heard Aimard’s recordings, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was immediately struck by two things upon hearing the Second Concerto (which comes first on CD 1).
Read more The piano is very skillfully integrated into the sound of the orchestra—something both conductor and soloist desired; and the tempo of the opening movement is surprisingly broad, more Allegro maestoso than con brio, though that sounds like a criticism, which it isn’t meant to be. The orchestral playing is incisive and yet ingratiating. Anyone expecting a dry, “modern” approach, shorn of Romantic notions of beauty, will be surprised: Aimard seems perfectly comfortable following in the footsteps of such pianistic forebears as Kempff and Serkin, exploring the long, singing line rather than concentrating only on mechanical correctness (the cadenza, by Beethoven, is spirited and anything but mechanical).

The slow movement is very beautiful, with elegant phrasing balanced by just enough gravitas, supported by an ardent Harnoncourt. The almost bell-like tone of the piano in the last two minutes could almost be Debussy, and the complementary acoustic is warm and slightly reverberant. The performance is capped by a brilliant, ebullient Rondo. Aimard is forthright, and the COE sounds wonderfully animated and is fairly closely miked, making for a very “present” but by no means claustrophobic sound. Harnoncourt suspends the last phrase for a beat, providing just a moment of puckish wit.

As with its predecessor, the First Concerto opens with a very broad Allegro con brio—so much so that the orchestral introduction this time sounds not so much grand as labored, with occasional spikes of volume by the full ensemble. With the entrance of the piano, things improve simply because Aimard plays with so much animation and character. And yet, I wished for the kind of exuberance and energy of Schiff/Haitink (Teldec) or Brendel/Rattle (Philips); it’s almost as though the performers were a bit suspicious of Beethoven’s panache and tried to make the movement more elegant and Mozartean, which it surely is. Only in the cadenza does the spirit of Beethoven emerge in all of his revolutionary spirit.

The Largo is something else again. Paced similarly to Schiff/Haitink (flowing smoothly), Aimard and Harnoncourt find stately dignity in the smallest gesture, and yet they don’t overload the movement with Meaning. This performance would be even more effective if the preceding movement had possessed more vigor. In this context, the finale arrives from another planet—here at last are energy and true brio, and soloist and conductor are in perfect sync. Aimard dances through his passages with aplomb and dexterity, and the integrated sound once again pays dividends as instruments swell and subside together (and end in a real blaze of sound). Taken altogether, this is an unbalanced, top-heavy performance.

I suppose consistency should be applauded, but I’m not sure why the first movement of each of the first three concertos should be so protracted, especially since the remaining movements are proportionally less obviously so. That said, the first movement of No. 3 is characterized by occasional bouts of very deliberate soloing and orchestral execution; a point is obviously being made, but I’m not sure to what end. The potency of the drama is diluted; the tension missing in the orchestra is replaced by exaggerated phrasing and dynamics. Turn to, for instance, Rudolf Serkin with Bernstein on Sony, and you hear Beethoven (and Serkin) at his most dramatic and eloquent.

But then, as in the earlier concertos, the Largo is imbued with a quiet, unassuming dignity that is very affecting. Aimard again impresses one with the self-effacing, yet technically assured, quality of his soloing. Harnoncourt’s accompaniment is discretion itself. The chamber dimensions of the orchestra add an extra degree of intimacy. And, characteristically, the final Rondo is spirited and joyful. Beethoven’s progressive tonality is celebrated with playing that is both controlled and bravura, especially (and not surprisingly) on the part of the soloist.

With the Fourth Concerto, Aimard and Harnoncourt can’t be faulted for stressing the moderato in the Allegro—Schiff/Haitink open in a similar, deliberate way. In this performance, though, the chamber orchestra may be a disadvantage: The close miking contributes to a feeling not of grandeur, but of compression—in loud passages the sound doesn’t fill out as a full-size orchestra can (the hall in Graz may well be a factor, too). Apart from the acoustics, the performance features the same unfussy pianistic articulation and sensitive accompaniment as the other performances in this set. My only complaint is the occasional too-deliberate mannerism that the conductor is prone to. Aimard adopts Brendel’s practice by playing the more purely pyrotechnic cadenza (“Ma senza cadere”).

The dialogue aspect of the Andante con moto is effectively communicated, as the orchestra’s implacable statements have little effect on the soloist’s eloquence. The dark clouds soon give way to the delightful finale. Harnoncourt eschews any deliberation for yet another rollicking Rondo (though with suitably dreamy interludes), and the sound presents no problems here.

One notices immediately, as the Fifth Concerto opens, the exertions of the soloist (presumably): They are quite audible. I occasionally miss the sound of a modern symphony orchestra in full flight: Though the COE plays magnificently, it is no match in sheer power for the Vienna or Berlin Phils, or the Dresden Staatskapelle (under Haitink with Schiff). The sound is again close, and lacks depth. I can’t find fault with much else in this performance. Aimard and Harnoncourt capture the sense both of dimension and occasion for this most celebratory work. And it is here above all where the desire to integrate the piano into the orchestra works best: This, the most symphonic of the concertos, benefits when the piano plays into the orchestral fabric as well as against it (so to speak).

This team excels in the slow movements, and that holds true for this last one. It may not be Beethoven at his most profound, but Aimard plays with the same sureness of touch and grace as in the earlier concertos. The transition to the finale is smooth and free of affectation. Harnoncourt and the orchestra add just enough swagger to the Rondo to avoid overdoing the festivities but to give the ending some guts, too. This Fifth can hold its own with the best recorded performances.

To summarize: I have reservations about the first movements in Nos. 1 and 3, but in general this is a very impressive set of the concertos. I hope Teldec sees fit to release some of them separately: The Fifth paired with the Second would make a splendid single CD.

-- Christopher Abbot, FANFARE [11/2003]
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Works on This Recording

1.
Concerto for Piano no 1 in C major, Op. 15 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Classical 
Written: 1795; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/2001 
Venue:  Live  Musikverein, Vienna 
Length: 39 Minutes 14 Secs. 
2.
Concerto for Piano no 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Classical 
Written: 1793/1798; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/2001 
Venue:  Live  Stefaniansaal, Graz, Austria 
Length: 31 Minutes 10 Secs. 
3.
Concerto for Piano no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/2000 
Venue:  Live  Stefaniansaal, Graz, Austria 
Length: 37 Minutes 50 Secs. 
4.
Concerto for Piano no 4 in G major, Op. 58 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/2002 
Venue:  Live  Stefaniansaal, Graz, Austria 
Length: 35 Minutes 27 Secs. 
5.
Concerto for Piano no 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Classical 
Written: 1809; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/2002 
Venue:  Live  Stefaniansaal, Graz, Austria 
Length: 39 Minutes 42 Secs. 

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