When you see Maria João Pires perform it is astonishing to think that she has reached her 70th
birthday, so sprightly and constantly questioning is her playing. It is every bit as astonishing to think that this is her first disc of Beethoven concertos. Better late than never, though, and I hope that this is only the first such disc of many.
Knowing what I do of Pires’ playing style, and having been lucky enough to see her in the flesh a few times with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I was expecting that the fourth concerto would suit her most closely, its rich vein of lyricism perfectly matched to her delicate approach at the keyboard. To my surprise, I found the third concerto much more compelling. There’s nothing wrong with No. 4 and the delicacy of Pires’ approach pays dividends, particularly in the first movement, which combines architectural scale with plenty of subtle insights. It’s Harding who comes off better, though, with some carefully observed shading of the orchestral picture, especially evident in the abruptness of the strings at the start of the slow movement, or the bristling sense of fun in the finale. Pires’ fingers caress the keys gently in the first movement and dance over them playfully in the finale, turning her style to suit every phrase and mood.
The third concerto comes off even better, though. For one thing, it has a fantastically lithe sound that makes its C minor world appear even more threatening than usual. The strings sound thin but insistent in that opening motif — Harding has clearly been listening to his “period” colleagues. There are plenty of touches in the orchestral sound, such as the plangent bassoon and edgy oboes, that add fantastic flashes of colour at every opportunity. Harding’s control over the orchestra is agile and impressive so that, when Pires enters, she doesn’t so much pour oil on troubled waters as jump in at the deep end and move the drama up a notch. It’s an incredibly impressive performance, like observing two sparring partners, and the same is true of the rambunctious finale, whose wind flickers in the coda sound fantastically cheeky. In contrast, the central Largo can rarely have been so peaceful and contemplative, a beautiful meditation characterised by warm, mellifluous sound and playing of utterly seamless legato from both piano and orchestra. This disc was both exhilarating and enlightening to listen to. Let’s hope there is more on the way.
Previous review: John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Concerto 3
~~ Concerto 4