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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Concertos
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op 15 [37:44]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op 19 [29:15]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op 37 [34:17]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op 58 [32:43]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op 73 [37:33]
Choral Fantasia in C minor, Op 80 [19:12]
Meeresstille und glüchliche Fahrt in D, Op 112 [7:03]
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Tonhalle Orchester Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 2004-2005, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94856 [3 CDs: 66:59 + 67:00 + 63:48]

This is one of the easiest choices in the catalogue. Yefim Bronfman and David Zinman teamed up just ten years ago to deliver an extraordinary Beethoven concerto cycle, characterized by fleet tempos, freshness and an utter lack of self-aggrandizement. Zinman had just recorded the nine symphonies, in interpretations somewhat influenced by historical evidence about performances in Beethoven’s time. That influence shows a little in the early concertos here, which have rarely sounded so unpretentious and, well, classical.

Great successes include No. 3, the first movement of which is freed from the recent trend of making it as long, slow, doom-laden and “profound” as possible; and the First Concerto, of which this is my favourite recording. That’s partly because Yefim Bronfman uses Beethoven’s final, absolutely massive (5-minute) cadenza in the first movement, and his solo brings down the house. It’s incredible. David Zinman energises the Zurich orchestra to dig into their parts with extra attention to detail, especially important in the Second Concerto, which isn’t always this interesting to hear.

The Emperor performance is not one of the greats, but it’s one of the really-goods. It’s fleet and nimble, like all these readings, with the orchestra maybe lacking a little character at the very start. Credit the hard-stick timpani and Bronfman’s glorious playing for enlivening the final coda, though. The pairings are nice, too, with the Swiss Chamber Choir shining in their feature, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, the kind of Beethoven piece that would be more well-known if there weren’t seventy other spectacular Beethoven pieces.

This reissue comes out at the same time as a similar set of interpretations by Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I prefer Bronfman and Zinman all-around, from the First — where Andsnes chooses the shorter, less impressive cadenza — to the Fifth — scintillating pianism weighed down by a faded, distant timpani which contributes to the Mahler orchestra’s lacklustre sound.

The original Bronfman releases, on Arte Nova, were cheap. You can find them now for a total of US $15. This Brilliant Classics release is somehow even cheaper. At the price being asked, you can buy it for the First Concerto alone ... or for the top-quality sound alone ... or for the non-concerto couplings, if they’re not in your collection. Here is a complete list of reasons not to own this set: (a) you hate classical music, (b) you are literally bankrupt, (c) you are legally deaf.

I just read a restaurant review which informed me that a London-based restaurant chain called Burger and Lobster is charging £20 ($32) for a hamburger. You can buy a life-enriching set of three hours of soul-nourishing music created with loving care by some of the greatest artists in the world today, for less than half the cost of a burger. We live in strange times.

Brian Reinhart

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concertos