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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1803) [33:50]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [33:21]
Sinfonietta Cracovia/Rudolf Buchbinder (piano. conductor)
rec. Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic Hall, Cracow, 26 March 2002. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 156-2 [68:33]
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It’s quite rare on disc to have the pianist also as conductor in Beethoven concertos. A live recording of such is, I think, unique in terms of current availability. And this is a genuine, one-off, live performance of both concertos, also rare these days, not a splicing of more than one. So its integrity is absolute. It shows. It’s finely articulated and tremendously engaging. The pianist has a commanding presence and the young orchestral players support him fervently.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1803)

Buchbinder the conductor achieves an orchestral introduction full of nervous energy, spontaneity, momentum and spirit, while the lean string sound assists the clear rhythmic articulation. The second theme (tr. 1 1:34) blossoms without any halting of progress.

Buchbinder the pianist enters arrestingly and continues ardently. Soloist and orchestra are always of one mind and the many appearances of the nervy quaver-crotchet motif from the end of the first theme’s first phrase are always clear without ever palling. Beethoven’s cadenza is sonorous and fluent. After this the haunting very soft strings and fine crescendo to the close are typical of the effective realization of Beethoven’s dynamics.

Buchbinder the pianist opens the slow movement with poise, a contrasting calm and gentleness. The orchestra brings a passionate involvement in the creation of a state of acceptance, a kind of sunny response to the turbulence of the first movement that in turn underpins the resolve of the rondo finale. Here again the pianist sets the mood, this time of pacy, bouncy, rigorous assertion. Spiky humour is added at the first episode (tr. 3 1:14). After this the return of the rondo theme (2:14) has a marked strut with the repeated notes emphasised more, as they are on its next, but not final appearance; a bit of poetic licence to provide variety. Another marked contrast is that between a dreamily relaxed second episode (3:21) and mettlesome fugue version of the rondo theme (4:14).

I compared probably the most famous live recording of all the Beethoven concertos in recent years, that made by Alfred Brendel in 1983 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/James Levine and now available at mid price (Philips 4709382).

The playing here is more stylish, with subtler contrasts and a consciousness of supreme artifice. But this isn’t necessarily an advantage in this concerto in comparison with Buchbinder’s greater directness and impact. In the finale in particular Brendel is more fastidious, even slightly whimsical and it’s Levine who supplies the high jinks.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)

Being in a major key, this work is happier, calmer, smoother and suaver, yet also at times just as enigmatic. Buchbinder’s interpretive approach is consistent with that of the third concerto. This is undeniably valid but for me it sells this concerto a little short.

Buchbinder the pianist brings poise and warmth to his opening solo. Buchbinder the conductor obtains scrupulous dynamic contrasts and expression of feeling in the expansive orchestral response. Yet this isn’t without self consciousness: the repetition of the piano’s opening motif becomes rather staid. Buchbinder the pianist is more assured, for example his creamy tone in leading with the second theme (tr. 4 6:45), but this then scrambles into the tutti. The beginning of the development (7:15), mysterious and veiled, is more evocative and the trenchant manner that follows is here appropriate.

Beethoven left two cadenzas to the first movement. Buchbinder plays the longer, better known one. Midway (15:20) this features a dramatic transformation of the concerto’s opening motif , here presented excitingly which makes the later, rather wistful recollection of the second theme (16:08) more telling. The coda is beautifully calm then affirmative.

The slow movement’s contrasting worlds are vividly laid out. Firm, blustering, impatient, rather gruff strings declaim. Smooth, flowing, patient piano meditates with a glorious sense of space. The moment they overlap (tr. 5 1:32) is startling.

In the rondo finale the orchestra’s soft playing, as at the opening, is more striking than the expected macho theme presentations. The orchestra’s delivery of the rondo theme is crisp, rather militant and somewhat joyless. But the central episode goes with a swing and warmth is achieved in the rondo theme’s appearance on two violas and solo cello (tr. 6 5:33) as a backcloth to the piano figuration. In the cadenza Buchbinder well contrasts the brusque and reflective, the latter through notably idyllic treatment (7:56) of the second theme.

For me the Brendel and Levine in the fourth concerto are more satisfying, largely because they find more relaxation and therefore serenity, partly through more assured phrasing and the Chicago orchestra’s sunnier, more singing line. The sforzandos are clear without being in your face. The finale is similarly more playful. In the first movement Brendel plays Beethoven’s other, shorter cadenza which near the end has an exquisitely plaintive take on the opening motif.

This CD Accord disc under review is pleasingly rounded and perspectived but the piano is recorded very close, so it dominates the front and centre of the sound spectrum. I can live with this as orchestral detail is still good. A squeaky piano stool and audience coughs are extra, less welcome, effects. The Philips Brendel early digital recording is thinner in tone, the piano also close but slightly less dominant and the orchestra more spaciously spread around it.

This CD Accord’s uncredited notes are a good mix of historical overview and analysis of the specific works. However, the translation from the Polish is at times peculiar. The immediate repeat of the main theme in the introduction to the third concerto is termed ‘recapitulation’. Cadenza is called ‘cadence’, you get ‘reflexively’ for reflectively, ‘crack-less’ instead of seamless. Best of all, for the first performance of the third concerto ‘Beethoven was left with a bunch of accidental musicians’.

To sum up, a vibrant and absorbing third concerto followed by a concentrated, but rather sober, fourth.

Michael Greenhalgh


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