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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Concertos [211:06]
No. 1 in C [38:51]
No. 2 in B flat [30:30]
No. 3 in C minor [39:39]
No. 4 in G [37:41]
No. 5 in E flat “Emperor” [43:02]
Choral Fantasia [21:06]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, 1967-68
EMI MASTERS 4332722 [3 CDs: 69:25 + 77:28 + 64:13]

When the 80-year-old Otto Klemperer recorded the Beethoven concertos with the 24-year-old Daniel Barenboim it was said that youth met experience, and this became one of the most famous of all the Beethoven concerto sets. It was re-mastered in 2006 and re-released here at budget price and it still works. In some ways it still has the capacity to surprise, though for me it’s far from perfect.
 
Klemperer and Barenboim seemed to come at these works from opposite ends, so to speak. Klemperer’s broad, granite-like view of Beethoven is well known from his recordings of the symphonies and his tempi are predominantly on the slow side here, but not always. It’s in the first movements that you notice it the most. They nearly all sound slower than our 21st century ears have grown used to, remarkably so in the case of the Emperor - I laughed out loud when I got to the main Allegro section. Interestingly, however, it tends not to be the case for the finales which, to me at least, seem much more fleet and flighty. I wonder if that’s because it’s nearly always the soloist who plays first in those movements? That might have allowed Barenboim to set the tempo more in his own image. The slow movements are lovely too. In some cases, most notably in No. 2, the tempo is broad again, as if Klemperer is trying to cast a veil of Elysian peace over them, though in others the music is left to develop naturally and in its own manner. The slow movement of the Emperor is the finest of all, perhaps the finest movement in the whole set for me, because it moves with stately beauty; there is a weight to the character of the piece but also enough transparency to let it breathe.
 
In his review of the same recording, Ian Bailey critiques the idea that Klemperer and Barenboim were a mismatch. The chemistry that flies off the two is certainly remarkable, but you’ll have to decide for yourself whether you like it. In the cases of Nos. 1-3, where the soloist has to wait until the end of the orchestral tutti, the effect is really interesting because when Barenboim enters he sounds as though he is trying to tame, or at least to temper the orchestra as Klemperer has set it up. Nos. 1 and 2, in particular, draw playing of remarkable delicacy from the piano, prinked and precise in contrast to the great weight of sound that has preceded it, and even in No. 3 the soloist seems to explore tentatively after his first rambunctious entry. Barenboim then seems to enter into genuine dialogue with the orchestra and the results are very exciting.
 
These qualities are there in many, many recordings of the Beethoven concertos. Perhaps I’m only noticing them more because of the style of playing in this set but I feel the richer for noticing them. They’re things I’ll take into listening to other sets too. Elsewhere, the stateliness is a problem, though, andthe great weight of Klemperer’s readings does in some ways consign them to a former era. The Choral Fantasia, for example, a difficult work to phrase at the best of times, galumphs along in a rather ungainly manner and sounds pretty OTT in the final bars. I wouldn’t rank this set above those of, say, Harnoncourt and Aimard or, even better, Howard Shelley and the orchestra of Opera North. This is the set which has impressed me the most in recent years. The contrast is particularly interesting because the soloist is the conductor so unity of orchestra and piano is even more complete. Barenboim and Klemperer are well worth a listen, though. It helps that it’s at budget price with Richard Osborne’s excellent booklet essay, though, interestingly, from some retailers you will find that its previous incarnation as an EMI Master was even cheaper than this one.
 
Simon Thompson
 

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