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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Fortepiano Concertos
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15 [34:04]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19 [25:29]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37 [33.22]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op.58 [34:00]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ [38:42]
Piano Concerto No. 6 in D major, Op.61a [35.36]
Arthur Schoonderwoerd (fortepiano - Johann Fritz, 1807-1810)
rec. 2004, 2007, 2008, Muziekcentrum Vredenburg d'Utrecht, Netherlands (4; 5); Dreieinigkeitskirche, Regenburg, Germany (3; 6); Saline royale d'Arc et Senans, France (1; 2).
ALPHA 820 [3 CDs: 72:42 + 68:58 + 59:33]

This set is a fresh collected edition of three CDs that were individually released between 2005 and 2010. This review could be written in two ways; I offer you both.

Emasculated Beethoven
What came over them, trying to play Beethoven's piano concertos with a chamber orchestra? They might as well have just used a string quartet and saved money. The wimpish twenty-person ensemble barely generates enough sound to be heard over the fortepiano. This isn't Beethoven; this is some scholar's opinion of what his music should sound like.

Schoonderwoerd's technique is certainly proficient, but the jangly sound of the fortepiano doesn't bring out the angst and gravitas of these powerful works. Granted, in the quieter passages, the sounds are nice, but they make you think you're sitting in a cabaret, not a real concert hall. When the "orchestra" tries to play louder passages, the thinness of the instrumentation is clear. There is only one instrument per part, so Schoonderwoerd accompanies the orchestra in many sections where modern performances allow the orchestra to blossom in its full glory.

There's very little justification for this approach in the liner-notes. We do read that a German book on performance practice published in 2002 points out that orchestras were much smaller, but were louder, since the spectators were closer to the musicians than they are today. It discusses the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, where Beethoven premiered some of his works, saying that it's 16m long, 7m wide, and 7.5m high. This room had seats for 24 musicians and 18 listeners.

Whatever the justification, this recording takes all the oomph out of these concertos, reducing them to attractive but weak chamber works. Give me a Steinway and a 100-strong orchestra any day.

A new way of hearing Beethoven
We're so used to hearing recordings of Beethoven's piano concertos with a huge orchestra and a loud Steinway piano that we forget what it was like hearing music when Beethoven himself performed these works. First, the modern piano; it's obvious that Beethoven used a fortepiano, and Schoonderwoerd on this recording plays a lovely sounding fortepiano by Johann Fritz from 1807-1810. It is however obvious that such a piano can't be heard over today's orchestras unless they play unusually softly, so Schoonderwoerd has looked at research to try to establish an orchestra size that works with this instrument. This set includes all five of the piano concertos, plus the sixth, the arrangement of Op. 61 violin concerto.

With forces of only twenty musicians - one instrument per part - the Cristofori ensemble provides a beautifully subtle accompaniment for the piano. Schoonderwoerd also plays continuo, accompanying the orchestra, pointing out that this, too, was common practice at the time. The liner-notes say that "In both the manuscript and the early editions of both piano concertos [the 4th and 5th], a 'basso continuo' is figured or written out."

The orchestra can be loud, but never overwhelming, as with larger ensembles. The smaller forces allow for more subtle dynamic changes than with a big orchestra, notably due to the smaller string sections. Sure, if you're used to the Boom! Boom! of some of these pieces with a full orchestra, you'll find this recording disconcerting, but that has always been the case when original performance practice recordings have appeared.

The small forces make these recordings come alive in a way that I’ve not heard before. While there are other recordings of the piano concertos with fortepiano, they use larger orchestras, and none of them have ever convinced me that this instrument sounds right in these works. This set does just that: it shows that these works may have been performed in this way, with a small ensemble, and it shows how they may have sounded. For that alone it’s worth hearing these recordings.

If you have lots of recordings of Beethoven's piano concertos, it might be time to look for a new way of hearing them. You may love this set, or you may hate it, but do approach this set with an open mind. You might be surprised.

Kirk McElhearn

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concertos