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alternatively Crotchet

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795, ?rev. 1800) [36:24]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (before 1793, rev. 1794-5, 1798) [29:55]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (?1800) [36:56]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-6) [34:46]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809) [39:19]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (piano-conductor)
rec. Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum, 21-23 May 2007. DDD
Video Director: Michael Beyer.
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9.
Disc format: 2 DVD 9.
Region code: 0 (worldwide).
EUROARTS 2056778 [114:03 + 83:37]

The strings’ opening to Concerto 1 is soft and stylish, the full orchestra repeat grand but sunny and smiling. The piano’s entry is urbane with humour but not skittishness. The second theme (tr. 2 5:46) has an unassuming easy grace. The piano’s cool descent from 7:16 with many modulations has a lovely musing quality. In the development (8:23) the piano solo has more breadth and contemplation. Everything is fluent yet sufficiently contrasted. The unidentified cadenza emphasises the musing aspect. I compared the DVD by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Kristyan Zimerman (piano-conductor) recorded in 1991 (Deutsche Grammophon 0734269), a performance without audience. His piano opening is friskier and lyricism rather more muscular, his development more relaxed. He plays Beethoven’s third cadenza which takes 4:47 against Barenboim’s cadenza of 2:04; the latter has a more lyrical, less exploratory nature. There’s more edge to the Staatskapelle Berlin’s playing. Barenboim gives the second theme more space and the development more probing quality. Throughout this review I shall provide comparative actual performance rather than published timings.


In the slow movement Barenboim shows a measured warm appreciation of the melody and the ornamentation as intrinsic to this. The orchestra’s continuation of the melody has a contrasting edge but the cantabile mellifluous clarinet solo a calming role and you’re prepared for its extended later duet with piano. Barenboim shows great delicacy at the return of the opening theme. While Zimerman is stately and even, Barenboim has more plasticity in the poetic colouring of phrases.
The scherzando element of the rondo finale is displayed by Barenboim with a fitting touch of irreverence. The first episode (tr. 4 30:10 in continuous timing) is a little more relaxed and the piano’s softest of passages before the return of the rondo like a welcome douche. You see from 30:32 where the left hand with the cheekily wide ranging melody crosses over the right. The second episode (31:58), now sportive, now tranquil, is enjoyably unpredictable. Zimerman is similarly lively and alert with his orchestra contrasting verve and elegance. His second episode is lighter in tone. But Barenboim is more bubbly and his orchestra’s sforzandi are more lightly pointed.
To the second concerto Barenboim brings a clear and charming orchestral introduction, smiling first piano entry but boisterous second before a second theme (tr. 5 43:55) repeated by piano sunniest of all. Here Zimerman has more verve than charm, the emphasis on crispness and rhythmic propulsion. In Beethoven’s cadenza. Barenboim’s approach, timing at 2:49 is more intellectual, analytical and stark, Zimerman’s, at 2:34, more sonorous, dramatic and heroic.


To the slow movement introduction Barenboim brings a solemn warmth, sudden fire at the fortissimo then humane feeling to the first violins’ expressive leap and extended descent, a practice mirrored near the end (tr. 6 62:06) when the Barenboim provides the gentlest mannered of solos which is at the same time limpidly in accord with its marking ‘con gran espressione’. Zimerman maintains a stately smooth line and plays the closing solo with poise and spaciousness, but with Barenboim’s slightly faster approach you appreciate more readily the direction of the music and thought processes behind it. And he gets absolute stillness around that closing solo.
The rondo finale is mettlesome hurly burly. In the first episode (tr. 7 64:58) Barenboim’s piano has more vivacity than the rather formal orchestra but that is won over to a cheerier nature for the graceful agility of the second episode (66:56) and more mercurial third (68:28). Zimerman is more energetic and provides more virtuoso dazzle. Barenboim, more laid back, finds more light and shade of tone.
The orchestral introduction to the third concerto finds Barenboim the conductor clearly contrasting its smooth and stormy elements while the second theme (tr. 8 75:05) gets particularly honeyed treatment. Barenboim the pianist enters firmly but more memorable is the rather sad elaboration of the latter part of the first theme. His second theme has a kindly simple glow. What struck me is his concern not with overall sweep and effect but the progression of the argument, key to which is careful articulation and engagement with the orchestra. This highlights the thoughtful development (81:35). Zimerman for this and the remaining concertos has Leonard Bernstein as conductor and in live performance in 1989. Theirs is a more sweeping heroic approach of high tension but the second theme is paler. Barenboim shows Beethoven’s cadenza moves from power to something more visionary. A tender presentation of the second theme turns into something more troubled and ultimately fiery. Zimerman’s cadenza is faster and more dramatic, taking 3:03. Barenboim’s at 3:49 allows you more time to appreciate the range and sonority.

Timings I II III Total
Barenboim 17:45 9:48 9:23 36:56
Zimerman 16:44 11:44 9:07 37:35

Barenboim’s opening solo sets the tone for the slow movement. It has poise and breadth yet you can also see where the melody is going. The orchestra provides comforting muted strings. Zimerman is stately and still but arguably too static though Bernstein supplies a warm, rich orchestral lullaby. In the central section (tr. 9 95:27) Barenboim gives warm support to the expressive bassoon and flute duet.
In the rondo finale it’s the quieter aspects that are particularly striking in Barenboim’s account, for instance the way the second solo, as marked, slows down and quietens (from tr. 10 102:02). The quixotic changeability of the movement is clear but its ultimate joy is equally anticipated, partly in the light treatment of the first episode (102:55), partly the calmly rhapsodic clarinet solo and exchange with the piano in the second episode (105:22). The fugue (106:19) is gently mysterious but the coda jubilant. Zimerman and Bernstein are more extrovert, their first episode more skipping, but their second less integral, more a holiday.
Barenboim brings clear, classical articulation to the fourth concerto. The piano solo opening is smooth and fluent, less pointed than Zimerman’s, the orchestral response gentle, less emotive than Bernstein’s, the second theme (DVD 2 tr. 2 2:31) probing. Barenboim’s third theme (3:21), in effect a triumphant completion of the second, is suitably more earnest though it doesn’t flower as much as Bernstein’s. Warmth arrives with Barenboim’s strings and the fourth theme (6:03). Barenboim the pianist, where Zimerman is cooler,  achieves a lovely still presentation just after the beginning of the development (from 9:13). Both pianists play Beethoven’s longer cadenza. Barenboim begins resolutely but becomes more magical, with the calmest presentation of the fourth theme, where Zimerman is lighter, and with Barenboim the first theme gradually becomes more insistent and solemn against the third which nevertheless wins out. Barenboim’s coda has the greater sense of becalming.


In the slow movement the orchestral Furies are stern and gruff, Barenboim’s piano Orpheus, encased in his own world, has an inward serenity. But as the Furies recede the piano world becomes more present and shows its serenity has been attained through suffering. Bernstein’s Furies are biting enough, Zimerman’s Orpheus has a drawn out sorrow but Barenboim’s somewhat more flowing tempo is more eloquent.
Serenity is much in evidence in Barenboim’s finale in the main contrasting theme (tr. 4 27:23). Barenboim gives particular attention to the lyrical aspects of Beethoven’s cadenza. Zimerman is more fiery here but Barenboim has rhythmic verve, if not Zimerman’s dazzle, and sufficient athletic edge in the central section.
In the fifth concerto again Barenboim is at his best in the quieter moments, even from the expressive treatment these receive in his opening flourishes. The opening orchestral theme is firm and resolute but the second theme (tr. 5 41:11) more tellingly delicate in its premiere in the minor on violins and roseate in its repeat in the major on the horns. Barenboim provides a majestic opening solo of the first theme and deliciously soft version of the second. The orchestra transforms the latter into a gruff march with an increasing swagger. But this doesn’t have the energy or excitement of Barenboim’s solo from 45:58 in contrary motion: as the right hand descends, the left ascends and vice versa. Woodwind soloists’ presentation of the first theme in the minor in the development from 48:58 is also eloquent. There’s more electricity in Zimerman and Bernstein’s account, more animation in the first theme, but the second is less rosy and memorable than Barenboim’s.


In the slow movement Barenboim pays more attention to the latter part of the marking Adagio un poco mosso than Bernstein and Zimerman. This gives the introduction more warmth but also makes clearer the shading that gives it a humane, dramatic dimension. Zimerman’s sense of span is impressive but Barenboim’s more flowing tempo and limpid playing makes the architecture more relaxed.  Barenboim smoothly embroiders the theme in the first variation (tr. 6 64:30) and then creamily backs the flute, clarinet and bassoon in the second variation (65:49), all are more emotively involved than the pristine calm of Zimerman and the VPO players.
Barenboim twice tries out the rondo finale theme musingly enough then smartly and unselfconsciously launches into it heartily. The orchestral repeat is sprightly and exuberant with snappy semiquavers. The main contrasting theme (tr. 7 69:24) finds the piano genially lyrical but moving freely forward. Other notable moments are the nimbly, sketchily applied mock fugue (70:55), Barenboim’s silky glide in the pp appearance of the rondo theme in A flat (72:05) and the stimulating strings’ presentation of it in fast repeated semiquavers. Bernstein gets a little more drive and sheer jubilation in the orchestral passages; Zimerman shows panache and some relaxation, but without quite Barenboim’s nuance in phrasing and delicacy of touch.
Barenboim’s approach is consistent. He realizes the poetic aspects wonderfully but the powerhouse ones are arguably understated, perhaps owing to the piano-conductor role. In these live performances from the Ruhr Piano Festival there are brief untidy moments and the piano sometimes takes quite a hammering. But you do witness a performance being created with many looks of rediscovery on Barenboim’s face along the way, often relishing a particular turn of harmony. This is a real gain.
Michael Greenhalgh


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