Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos Nos. 1–5. Piano Concerto in D
(arr. from the Violin Concerto).
Howard Shelley (pn, cond);
Tasmin Little (vn);
Tim Hugh (vc);
Kathryn McGuckin, Gillene Herbert (sop);
Hazel Croft (mez);
Paul Rendall (ten);
Paul Gibson (bar);
Dean Robinson (bs);
Opera North Ch; Opera North O
CHANDOS CHAN 10695 (4 CDs: 316:27)
This is a Howard Shelley pianist-conductor show. It solves the potential, and sometimes real, problem of conductor/soloist incompatibility (or of piano vs. orchestra contentiousness) faced by concerto performances. Conducting from the piano has always been a practice more or less acceptable, with Bach and Mozart piano concertos being the favorite and the most likely successful vehicles for, or victims of, this practice. The more assertive the orchestral contribution, the less likely the success of this dual role. The Beethoven piano-and-orchestra works—the piano concertos, the Triple Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy—would appear not to be conducive to the success of this practice, with the “Emperor” Concerto (No. 5) and the Triple Concerto having the most to lose. I tried to approach Shelley’s gutsy production with an open mind. I certainly approached it with a curious, and somewhat skeptical, mind.
There are very many available sets and individual discs of the five piano concertos by the most accomplished pianists with renowned conductors and orchestras covering the last 75 years. There are many discs of the Triple Concerto available by distinguished trios of artists with distinguished conductors and orchestras. And there will be more to come. What is the attraction of this Chandos compilation aside from the three curiosities—the piano concerto version of the violin concerto and the two WoO pieces—and from Beethoven piano-and-orchestra comprehensiveness? There is at least one strong attraction on one track: a fascinating 12-minute discussion and keyboard illustration by Shelley of Beethoven and Mozart in terms of their respective C-Minor piano concertos. Among Shelley’s interesting observations are their similar openings and their repeated focus on the “wayward” A
-tone. Shelley goes on to discuss the tonal rationale behind Beethoven’s use of remote keys for the slow movements of the C-Minor Concerto (E Major, connecting it to the A
), the E
-Major Concerto (B Major), and C-Major Concerto (A
-Major). Curiously, he does not mention the C-Major Triple Concerto’s A
-Major slow movement. I could almost recommend this set just for these 12 minutes of Shelley. How these performances stack up to their more auspicious competitors, however, remains the central issue of this review.
Shelley does not present Beethoven’s “message,” however that is interpreted, or reveal Beethoven’s “soul,” whatever that may mean. He is neither especially poetic nor especially majestic nor especially adroit at phrase shaping, and he offers nothing that I would call brilliantly or thrillingly insightful. An exception is his treatment of the Third Piano Concerto. But he does address Beethoven’s attention to detail through revelation of the astonishing part-writing that exists in these concertos. And he achieves an admirable balance between piano and orchestra. He is reasonably attentive to the emotional aspects of these concertos, especially the Third and Fourth, but emotion never trumps clarity. What we have here might be regarded by some listeners as too analytic an approach, with the only releases from dryness found in erratic moments in some of the cadenzas. I, for one, want to hear everything there is to hear, and much of what is here on disc reveals so very much of what is there on paper.
The first two concertos are played modestly well, without pretense but also without great distinction. Shelley makes too big a deal of the second-movement cadenza in No. 2, and displays too much tempo tampering throughout the second movement of No. 1. For the Third Piano Concerto, however, Shelley produces one of the most impressive performances that I have encountered on disc. Phrase shaping, dynamics, emotional expression and control, clarity of line and of part-writing, and distinctiveness put this Beethoven-in-C-Minor masterpiece on a par with the best on disc. The Fourth Piano Concerto also comes off well, with the second movement’s dialogue between orchestra and piano suitably discursive and conversational as it progresses. The “Emperor” Concerto is somewhat of a disappointment. Here, clarity of part-writing in the first movement, and even moreso in the third movement, is insufficient to compensate for the absences mentioned earlier in the review. Poetry in the second movement should be a major presence but instead is somewhat of a B-Major absence. The “Emperor’s” new clothes are not fitting. Perhaps the conductor-designer should be separate from the pianist-tailor when the apparel is of grand and majestic design.
The oddities on this disc—the Triple Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and the D-Major “Piano-that-was-a-Violin” Concerto—are all admirably performed. In fact, the Triple Concerto and the Choral Fantasy performances are excellent for their clarity of detail and generally good musicianship. The difficult cello part in the Triple Concerto is negotiated flawlessly by Tim Hugh. My only complaint is violinist Tasmin Little’s squeaky tone, which is not to my liking. The Choral Fantasy, while not one of Beethoven’s better efforts but one I enjoy, comes close to rivaling Rudolf Serkin’s treatment with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
The “Piano-that-was-a-Violin” Concerto is a very interesting piece worthy of more attention than it has been given. Shelley does very well here, with special attention given to the beautiful bassoon passages in the first and third movements. The cadenzas in the first and second movements are almost comical and kind of crazy—and they are Beethoven’s. They are good fun. The reconstructed Piano Concerto WoO 4 was written by the 12- or 13-year-old budding composer. Only keyboard reductions of the orchestral parts are extant, thus Shelley’s intervention.
This set complements but does not in any significant way best the previously recorded and more prominent efforts of the most acclaimed Beethoven concerto pianists, whether Schnabel, Serkin, Arrau, Brendel, Pollini, Perahia, or Goode, to name just a few. The Orchestra of Opera North, while not outstanding, plays well enough so that comparison with better ensembles would produce the obvious but irrelevant clichés. Shelley is an excellent pianist. There is enough worthy of attention on these discs to warrant a solid recommendation.
FANFARE: Burton Rothleder
Works on This Recording
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15: I. Allegro con brio
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15: II. Largo
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15: III. Rondo: Allegro scherzando
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58: I. Allegro moderato
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58: II. Andante con moto -
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58: III. Rondo: Vivace
Rondo in B flat major, WoO 6
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19: I. Allegro con brio
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19: II. Adagio
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19: III. Rondo: Molto allegro
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor": I. Allegro
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor": II. Adagio un poco mosso -
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor": III. Rondo: Allegro
Beethoven and Mozart: An Obsession? - A talk by Howard Shelly
Be the first to review this title