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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [36:18] 
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809) [37:02] 
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 2016-17, The Sage Gateshead Concert Hall
Cadenzas by Beethoven.
ONDINE ODE1292-2 [73:38]

With this CD, Lars Vogt begins a cycle of Beethoven piano concertos as soloist and conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, of which he has been Music Director since 2015. Immediacy is the characteristic I find most telling about his Piano Concerto 1. There is a bright and purposeful sweep about it, from the calm opening yet grandeur of its repeat, the initially demure second theme (tr. 1, 1:19), merrily taken up and completed later by the piano after the march-like third theme (2:16) and fourth theme (2:49) only heard as the first piano solo. Vogt convinces you that all this material is integrated: the third theme seems to emerge from the second and become march-like. The fourth seems a variation on the second theme, which then mocks it. Even if you know the work well, it is likely that, as it happened to me, that Vogt’s presentation strikes you afresh with the boldness of some of Beethoven’s piano writing and at times equally with its contrasts of mood and phases of tranquillity. In the development (6:59) the searching quality of the piano is matched by that of the strings and wind. Throughout, the rapport between Vogt and his orchestra is evident. And Vogt can equally happily be either delicate or muscular. Such contrasts come gloriously to the fore in the cadenza, Beethoven's longer one played here: Vogt gives it 8 seconds short of 5 minutes. He brings ample drama to its beginning, yet with a sense of new material as an expansion of what has already been heard. He also provides an affectionate and relaxed contemplation of the second theme and a jolly, even comic, version of the third. Its presentation is spell-binding, as Vogt says in the insightful interview in the CD booklet notes, “I’m in this classical concerto, but I actually want to venture beyond these limits.” And I feel this is what Beethoven also does in his cadenza.

I compared Vogt’s playing with a cycle presented whole, recorded in 2015-2016 by another piano conductor with his own band, Stefan Vladar and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (Capriccio C7210). Timing at 16:32, Vladar's first movement is a shade swifter than Vogt's 17:37. The Capriccio recording places the piano, and to a lesser extent the orchestra, more forward than Vogt’s Ondine, whose slightly greater perspective makes for more clarity in the interplay between piano and orchestra. The impact of the Capriccio bolder material is more bruising and the piano generally seems more strapping. For example. the sforzandi after its completion of the second theme are really vehement. However, that completion, without Vogt's delight in fulfilment, seems routinely discharged. But later the passages of contrary motion between left and right hand are very clear and admirably disciplined. Vladar also arguably brings more character through a more growling piano in the development, invigorating in a bullish way, where Vogt is happy to float and wander until the recapitulation arrives. Taking 9 seconds over 4 minutes, Vladar treats Beethoven's cadenza in more precipitate fashion than Vogt. The result is ruthlessly heroic and very exciting but with lower range of character and dynamic contrast than Vogt. Vladar's concentration is on fire and brimstone: the second theme makes a rather pallid appearance, and he only nods in perfunctory fashion at the third.

The slow movement intriguingly charts a relationship between piano and orchestra within which the different themes they both present evolve. The piano’s aria-like theme in Vogt's hands is self-communing yet articulate. The orchestra’s response, in effect subsidiary theme, is sympathetic but with disciplined, rhythmic close. The clarinet takes up the piano’s theme, the piano responds with expanded lyricism, the orchestra with more pointed discipline. The piano finally counters the disciplined motif: Vogt plays this like a sigh with further musing both poised and gentle before returning to an elaborated version of his theme. When the clarinet takes up the disciplined theme, the piano echoes it and adds a rhapsodic tailpiece (tr. 2, 8:20) which the clarinet echoes and is then decorated by the piano. Vogt and his orchestra play all this seamlessly and with great sensitivity and finesse, the piano’s ornamentation of the theme intrinsic to it and the key clarinet solos quiet yet smouldering. With Vladar’s piano and orchestra recorded more closely the effect is more projected, forthright and immediate, the piano with poised apexes of phrases but ornamentation more ostentatious and thereby extrinsic; Vogt is more allusive, mellow and intimate.

The rondo finale is delivered by Vogt with a winning mix of athleticism, wit and elegance. Country dance is evoked in the orchestra’s stomping on the first beat of the bar countered by the brass and timpani’s later cross rhythms on the final beat of the bar. In his solos in the first episode (tr. 3, 0:52)Vogt’s clear distinguishing of the right and left hand is a delight, especially when they take it in turns to echo one another. The transition from episode to rondo theme return is perfectly achieved when the gruff orchestra is brushed off by the tittering piano. In the second episode (2:34) you appreciate the deft orchestral wrapping around the piano part. Later the orchestra’s monumental signalling of a cadenza is dispatched in 18 seconds by resolute piano descents and then delicate ascents. But the orchestra has the last laugh when it insists on a grand termination of the piano's gentle, glistening final presentation of the rondo theme. Yet there is still warmth in the orchestral high jinks and stimulating fizz in the tempered fortissimos. Vladar’s orchestra, by contrast, is like a dragon breathing fire, determined to engulf everything in its path. The piano escapes only by being a helter-skelter hive of energy, so that while the interplay between right and left hand is throughout lively, in the second episode the orchestral wrapping sounds uncomfortably scrambled.

Although Emperor was not an authorized nickname for Piano Concerto 5, it certainly suits the grandeur of its first theme and overall progress in the opening movement. I feel Vogt’s performance also points up Beethoven’s novel approach to cadenzas here. Effectively he showcases them on the piano at the opening with three passages of piano flourishes in response to powerful but pretty bare orchestral chords. Here is boldness and sense of purpose even before the opening theme. That itself begins quite light in the orchestra until horns, trumpets and drums aggrandize it, and you early become aware of a feature of this performance: Vogt’s sensitivity to Beethoven’s dynamic gradations. Those three piano mini-cadenzas are later recapitulated, as if a necessary part of the opening theme, but when it comes to the momentously signalled and expected cadenza near the end of the movement, after the piano’s bold but brief treatment of the opening theme and wonderfully pearly and intimate realization of the second theme in upper register, the horns come in to accompany it, and the cadenza is over in 42 seconds. The second theme is first presented (tr. 4, 1:58) by the orchestra with the quality of ballet, the horns in duet delicately rocking. Later the piano takes it up in a creamy, liquid and serene manner before its transformation as a snazzy orchestral march (5:59). And only a minute earlier the piano has appended a theme to the first theme to reinvigorate that. Later there are some lovely moments as the woodwind present this chameleon first theme sweetly in turn. Vladar’s account of this movement is a touch swifter and more exciting, his contrast of the simultaneous right-hand ascents and left-hand descents breathtaking, but overall he lacks Vogt’s grandeur and, in the cadenza, the intimacy of his delicate passages. Where Vogt glistens with delight, Vladar is icy cool. Vogt also benefits from a recording that better points up the interplay of piano and wind, for example the second horn solos from 13:23.

To the chorale-like melody which is the essence of the slow movement, Vogt brings tenderness and warmth from its quietly reverent opening. The piano’s meditation in response is limpidly delivered, expressive but also with a suggestion of improvisation. There is an element of ecstasy when Vogt reaches the succession of semiquaver runs and then trills (from tr. 5, 3:11). Then come two variations on the “chorale”. Vogt delivers the first (3:56), from the piano, with both deftness and elegance, while in the second (5:07) the piano offers a tranquil lapping accompaniment to the woodwind presentation respectfully shadowed by the strings. Vladar’s approach to the movement is plainer, fresh in its directness and unaffected quality, but I miss Vogt’s style.

In the finale we do not get a cadenza, yet the whole movement seems like an immense cadenza for the piano, with its brio and soft-hued passages constantly and often suddenly alternating. Even in Vogt’s first delivery of the opening theme, the hearty, bounding upward melody is contrasted by a playful, skipping downward one. The Royal Northern Sinfonia’s repeat, admirably accented, is more strenuous, perhaps a shade too emphatically happy. It made me think of the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: you will rejoice! Yet Beethoven’s rondo theme is irrepressible. The more times it occurs, the more you want its jubilation to last for ever. This is owed to his skilful variation of presentation. For example, after the first episode (track 6, 0:59) the piano meditates on the rondo’s closing phrase. The rondo’s fourth and fifth appearances on the piano evaporate into gauzy semiquaver runs. The orchestra’s last full statement of it, a shimmering presentation with tremolo strings, is the more effective for being only its third orchestral outing. And the Royal Northern Sinfonia delivers it with great dynamism. Timing at 9:40, Vladar is only 52 seconds faster than Vogt in this movement, and his loud playing is of great bravura. But he does not quite match the magic, for instance in the change at 1:38 from Vogt’s thundering long arpeggio to the soft sweet gliding from 1:41. His quieter passages are less compelling than Vogt’s, I think because Vogt’s shaping of phrases creates more breathing space. (Vladar’s Vienna Chamber Orchestra is splendidly spirited throughout.)

Michael Greenhalgh



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