BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos: No. 4; No. 5, “Emperor” • Till Fellner (pn); Kent Nagano, cond; Montreal SO • ECM 2114 (72:42)
Words are inadequate to describe the sheer joy I experienced at listening to this disc. I’d long ago abandoned hope of ever hearing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto played as I’ve heard it in my head, and as it is played here. In past reviews, I’ve observed that of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, the Fourth is interpretively the most difficult, but withoutRead more actually explaining why I believe this to be true. So allow me here to put forth my hypothesis.
The year 1802 is often cited as the beginning of Beethoven’s so-called “middle period.” But I don’t think there is a clean breakpoint, a moment of epiphany preceding which all is “early,” and following which all is “middle.” Rather, there were works that looked to the road ahead, while others glanced at the terrain just covered through the rearview mirror. But the question is not one of just old vs. new. No one would argue that the “Eroica” and Fifth Symphonies are not products of Beethoven’s middle period or that they do not represent something new, perhaps even radical, in symphonic writing. But beginning with the G-Major Piano Concerto and the “Razumovsky” Quartets, there are individual works that are not simply new or even radical, but that represent an attitudinal aesthetic shift and a change in method of construction. Of these, in addition to the aforementioned, I would cite, among the concerted and symphonic works, the Violin Concerto, the “Pastoral” Symphony, the “Emperor” Concerto, and possibly the Seventh Symphony.
However “new” the “Eroica” and Fifth Symphonies may be, they are essentially Classical works, not only in form and design, but in the manner in which their fundamental musical materials are fashioned and manipulated. Phrase lengths are regular and short, and the music unfolds in balanced, relatively symmetrical periods and paragraphs. Statements are authoritative, imperious, and magisterial. And great crises and high drama on the storm-tossed seas buffet the ship on its determined course; i.e., Beethoven’s storied Sturm und Drang. Yet we find little of touching tenderness or lyrical enrapturement. Amidst the tempest, however, there are moments of calm; and a lull, as in the eye of a hurricane, prevails. Look at and listen to the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the “Pastoral” Symphony, and the “Emperor” Concerto. There is something very different here. These are full-blown Romantic works. The musical statements no longer seem constrained by rules of phrase regularity or structural symmetry. But even more important, the musical gestures seem somehow liberated, free to expand, to open outward, and to float freely in time and space; and there are entire movements in which time itself seems suspended in a dream state or trance-like reverie. The second movements of the Violin and “Emperor” Concertos and the “Pastoral” Symphony are prime examples.
The G-Major Piano Concerto No. 4 speaks yet another language, one in which dramatic urgency is continually subverted by a new musical construct: an all-embracing humaneness as expressed through a broad, sweeping, upward-bound lyricism, which, to my knowledge, makes its appearance for the first time in this work. This same sense of all-encompassing compassion pervades the first movement of the Violin Concerto, the last movement of the “Pastoral” Symphony, and reaches its apex in the ecstasy and hushed mystery of the Seid umschlungen (“O ye millions, I embrace ye”) episode of the Ninth Symphony.
Artists who approach the Fourth Piano Concerto from a vantage point of Beethoven’s first three concertos and his pre-“Pastoral” symphonies, I think, miss its essential ingredients, poetic rhapsody, and rapture. Which brings me at last to Till Fellner and Kent Nagano. An ineffable poetry and grace illuminate their reading from within, such that I can honestly say this is how Beethoven’s G-Major Piano Concerto was meant to sound. Every detail and nuance is traced with a touching tenderness and delicacy that is neither fussy nor prissy, but rather flows, as if unbidden, like an outpouring of radiant, seraphic song. This is no mere dialogue or conversation between soloist, conductor, and orchestra, but the entwining of souls in rapt concord.
Fellner has been on my A-list of pianists ever since I acquired his ECM recording of Bach’s WTC, Book I (see review in 27:6). His touch and the tone he coaxes from his Steinway Model D are pure velvet throughout; and he has the musical intelligence and instinct to know that this is not an appropriate work in which to flaunt one’s virtuosic prowess. Not that the concerto doesn’t pose technical challenges—it does; and not that there aren’t ample opportunities to prove one’s chops—there are; but even in Beethoven’s cadenza, Fellner keeps the flashier passages in check and ferrets out the more lyrical elements. Tempos are decidedly on the moderate side, which allows the music to breathe and expand, and which I believe gives this performance its ennobling feeling. Nagano, the Montreal orchestra, and the ECM recording are as much a part of this magnificent achievement as is Fellner. The recording has a fullness, depth, and solidity to it that are equal to the very best modern technology has to offer.
But what of the “Emperor” Concerto you must be wondering? Fellner, Nagano, and company bring much the same approach and temperament to it as they do to the Fourth Concerto. Obviously, the first movement is a more extroverted, one might even say, exhibitionistic, work. It struts and strides where the first movement of the Fourth Concerto soars and glides. Yet, even among the “Emperor’s” rhetorical regalia, there are moments of tenderness and repose. And of course, it’s in the great slow movement, as in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, that we enter into another of Beethoven’s dream fantasies, one that anticipates, perhaps like none other he composed, the world of Chopin.
I believe I’ve commented before that no pianist plays the “Emperor” Concerto badly. One must already be a consummate technician and thoroughly prepared to attempt it in the first place. Some, of course, are better than others, and Fellner is surely one of the best. But like every other pianist I’ve ever heard, with the exception of Horowitz in his recording with Reiner and the RCA Victor Symphony, Fellner, too, loses coordination in the descending double trills right at the end of the first movement. I don’t know what it is about that passage that causes pianists such difficulty. I suppose it’s a bit like rubbing your tummy in one direction with your left hand while you rub the top of your head in the opposite direction with your right hand. Sooner or later, they get of our sync. With Fellner, the good news is that it happens later, just in the last beat or two of the last bar. It’s not even noticeable, unless you have a fetish about it, as I do. In Fellner and Nagano’s hands, the “Emperor” takes on the character of a true ensemble piece, as opposed to being presented, as it often is, as a virtuoso display vehicle. It’s a winning performance that reveals many felicities of scoring and inner detail that sometime tend to be glossed over.
It’s still early in the season, but this release will definitely be in the running for my 2010 Want List, and it deserves to be on every reader’s list for “Concerto Recording of the Year.” A stunning achievement by all involved.