This is another of
Fumiko Shiraga's experimental renderings
of well known piano concertos in chamber
music format. I was hugely impressed
by her performances of the two Chopin
concertos with string quintet when
I recently reviewed them. They were
justified, I thought, because (a) there
was some evidence that Chopin may have
performed them in that format, and (b)
the composer inhabited a creative world
that was chamber in intimacy and scale.
Justification in the
case of the Beethoven concertos is weaker.
Ralf Schnitzer, at the start of his
article in the booklet, asks, "Beethoven's
two early piano concertos with string
quintet instead of orchestra - why make
such a recording?"
In the four pages that
follow, no answer is volunteered. What
can be said, by way of stating the obvious,
is that Beethoven wrote the works before
his First Symphony at a time
when he was experienced in writing chamber
works but was still cutting his teeth
as an orchestral composer. Nevertheless,
these renderings rarely sound like chamber
works and especially not Beethoven ones.
The composer is already beginning to
try out the piano/orchestra adversarial
approach (especially in the First
Concerto which he wrote second).
The orchestra has a personality of its
own with the ability to present a range
of tonal colour that Beethoven well
exploits. These characteristics do not
apply in the case of the Chopin concertos
to anything like the same extent hence
their easier transposition to chamber
So with little or nothing
to justify the arrangements from a historical/authenticity
standpoint, the focus is directed firmly
towards the quality of performance.
Shiraga's direct, fresh
and unmannered style is particularly
suited to these relatively youthful
works. It also matches the percussive
immediacy of the chamber sound. She
has clearly formed a perfect understanding
with her Bremen String Soloists just
as she had with the Yggdrasil Quartet
in the Chopin. Her relatively sparing
use of pedal lends a spring and clarity
to her playing. Some people may feel
her steadiness occasionally over controlled
- for example, many pianists make the
minor episode in the finale of the First
Concerto, known by some in the trade
as the "rumba" section, dance
more dramatically, although in the first
movement cadenza she really fizzes in
a way that I found exceptionally exciting.
This returns me to
issues concerning the arrangements.
That cadenza, with Shiraga powering
away on her modern Yamaha in concert
hall mode (taking up a quarter of the
movement), seems to me to unbalance
a movement otherwise presented as chamber
music. There is an incongruity about
it. Another issue is the occasional
support the piano gives to the Bremen
soloists in the original score’s orchestral
passages. For example, Shiraga beefs
up the First Concerto’s opening
tutti by thumping in immediately at
the repeat of the first subject a few
bars from the beginning. The result
is that the effect of Beethoven’s intended
magical entry of the piano much later,
with its surprising new melody, is gone.
So an important statement in the musical
narrative loses its force.
performances are such that I am glad
to own the disc and will return to them
for their clarity, poise, excitement
and the restrained beauty of the slow
The recorded sound
is very fine and captures the closeness
of a chamber ambience.