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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1793 rev. 1794-95) [26:24]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15 (1797) [33:06]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1809) (Allegro [18:40])
CD 2
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1809) (Adagio un poco mosso [5:48]; Rondo: Allegro [9:26])
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 (1800-03) [32:51]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 (1805-06) [31:12]
Melvyn Tan (fortepiano)
London Classical Players/Roger Norrington
rec. Studio No.1, Abbey Road, London, March 1988 (1-2), July 1988 (3-4), January 1989 (5)
VIRGIN VERITAS 5220142 [78:34 + 79:36]
Experience Classicsonline

Doing my little research sweep before starting this review, I was very surprised to find how few versions there are of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos performed on fortepiano. Robert Levin has recorded a complete set with Sir John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv using one of Paul McNulty’s excellent instruments, the same maker whose expressive tones have helped make Ronald Brautigam’s recordings for the BIS label so special. This would seem to be a top choice at full price if you can still find it, but the re-release of Roger Norrington and Melvyn Tan’s cycle on Virgin’s budget Veritas label provides a valuable introduction to the world of Beethoven on authentic instruments.
What is indeed significant about these recordings is both Norrington’s interpretation, and the use of a fortepiano instead of the pianoforte employed in most modern performances and recordings. The wood-framed instrument used here has thinner strings held at lower tension that with a metal-framed modern grand piano, the volume of sound and absolute dynamic and keyboard range being a good deal reduced in comparison. The argument against such projects often states that ‘if Beethoven were alive today he would have used the much improved modern piano’, and if you are used to these pieces played on a modern grand the first impressions with this strange sounding fortepiano in this recording would seem to bear this out. The point is undoubtedly true, if founded on an impossibility, but the main issue is an attempt to find out what all the fuss was about in the first place. Audiences confronted with Beethoven would have been more used to the more galant style of composers like Haydn or Mozart, and having a conductor like Norrington recreate the seating plan for the orchestra is as it would have been in Beethoven’s day and using instruments contemporary to the time, gives us a closer idea of what they might have encountered than with an all-modern performance.
Jos van Immerseel, who has also recorded the five concertos on fortepiano with Bruno Weil and Tafelmuziek on the Vivarte label, asks the question, “How can we know which grand piano inspired Beethoven?” In the large number of his letters preserved for posterity Beethoven writes about pianofortes, usually describing them with satisfaction and even enthusiasm.

The names of instrument builders which frequently appear are those of Walter and Streicher, and it is a copy by Derek Adlam of one of Nannette Streicher’s instruments used by Melvyn Tan in these recordings, so we can be sure the sound is one which Beethoven would have recognised. Immerseel also makes the point that Beethoven’s writing never pushes these instruments beyond what would have been possible at the time, so the idea of the composer raging against the limitations of the instruments at his disposal is something of a myth – for sure, he extended the techniques of playing beyond most musicians in some of his sonatas, but that’s another issue entirely. The instrument’s leather-clad hammers provide a different kind of clarity which incidentally would later be re-discovered by Conlon Nancarrow for the intense complexities of some of his player-piano music, so there’s some retro-historical interest to be had as well. Once you have become used to the different sonorities of the fortepiano, you soon come to value the warmth and intimate expressiveness which it can create under the right fingers, and specialist Melvyn Tan amply proves the case for resurrecting these instruments in this repertoire through these recordings.
Having accepted the value of original instruments and historically informed performance, one can relax and enjoy the music. These recordings were well received when they first came out in the late 1980s, and while historically informed performance practise is a constantly evolving art the standard here is one by which others can still be judged. One of the most fascinating aspects is hearing how Beethoven’s own cadenzas developed and changed through the course of these works, and while Tan’s touch can be quite magical at any moment, it is when the orchestra is silent that you can appreciate it the most. The solo opening of the Largo second movement of the Piano Concerto No.3 is a case in point, where the pedalling shows how the chords can be built in stages without creating an the unwieldy wash of sound an undamped modern grand creates. Tan’s agility and effortless technical accuracy is constantly in evidence, and one can easily imagine the breathtaking response these pieces would have drawn from contemporary crowds. The fortepiano brings out some remarkable effects. The introduction to the cadenza in the first movement of the Piano Concerto No.4 is one such, and the low register of the instrument has an other-worldly character of its own which Beethoven often allows to provide moments of most intense drama.
The orchestra, while indeed using authentic instruments, nevertheless sounds not entirely dissimilar to a modern orchestra. The string sound is full and generous, despite what sounds like a fairly strictly applied non-vibrato basis, something which Norrington has since pursued with somewhat idealistic zeal. The results of this have more recently made him controversial in some circles. At this stage the winds are allowed a certain amount of license in this direction however, and the solos sound natural and unmannered. Fans of Norrington’s pioneering 1980s Beethoven Symphony cycle with the London Classical Players on EMI – now also on Virgin – will know what to expect in this regard. The refreshingly different colour and sonorities with this orchestra should not be underestimated, and if you only know these concertos with modern instruments you will find yourself discovering them anew, like revisiting a familiar interior which has had all the peachy plush tasteful trimmings taken down to reveal rich wood panelling and some perfectly preserved late 18th century tapestries.
This set of the Beethoven Piano Concertos has appeared in a number of guises in the past, as an earlier Virgin Veritas edition in 1996, and as one of the Virgin ‘4 Pleasure’ four disc sets in 2003 which also included the Choral Fantasy and some solo works. It is a very good thing that these concerto recordings are maintained in the catalogue with this new re-release. Not long before these recordings would have been released for the first time I remember a client in the great Farringdons record shop asking for something ‘on black vinyl’ rather than those newfangled CeeDee things. These recordings are worth every penny of their diminutive asking price, and I heartily recommend them to anyone looking for an alternative to these works other than ‘on big black concert grand piano’.
Dominy Clements


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