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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C major, Op. 56 (1804-1807) [36:18]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (?1800-1803) [35:33]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Tania Tetzlaff (cello)
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 2016/17, The Sage Gateshead Concert Hall, UK
Cadenzas by Beethoven.
ONDINE ODE1297-2 [69:46]

This is the second release of Lars Vogt’s cycle of Beethoven piano concertos as soloist and conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, of which he has been Music Director since 2015. It follows Piano Concertos 1 and 5 (Ondine ODE 1292-2, review). Immediacy is the characteristic I found most telling about his Piano Concerto 1. Now in Piano Concerto 3 the characteristic is similarly one of alertness, but more welded to create an eventful account even of the substantial introduction before the piano enters. The soft opening is mysterious yet well sprung and its latent power is soon revealed, but after these masculine forces there is feminine grace, the expansion of the first theme (tr. 4, 0:36) is optimistic, and the second theme (1:32), sumptuously delivered on clarinet and first violins, is soon shown in sorrowing times too. In Vogt’s hands this is like an opera in the making. The man asserts his authority as the timpani at 3:16 provide the most emphatic presentation of the rocking motif with which the first two phrases of the first theme end. This sets up the grim directness of the rising scales of the piano’s entry, but soon thereafter Vogt’s poetic reflection elaborates and emphasises the sensitivity of the first theme’s third phrase. In the development, presented in pastel shades, I appreciated the clarity of the relationship between piano and orchestra, a seamless continuity of intent probing. In the recapitulation the return of the second theme has more sinew, as if the relationship between man and woman is now in accord. Vogt plays Beethoven’s cadenza, bringing to it an imposing start after which you notice the reflective quality as much as the impact of his rippling semiquaver cascades. Most memorable is the childlike simplicity and tenderness of the second theme, while in its Presto impassioned continuation he also manages to convey a stately quality of epic reflection.

As in my earlier review of Vogt, I compared 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 15:30, Vladar's first movement takes a swifter view of Beethoven’s Allegro con brio marking than Vogt's 17:02. This has advantages and disadvantages. Vladar’s introduction is neat, with a courtly elegance, but less nuanced than Vogt’s. I was too often reminded of the polite world of an orchestral serenade. Less is made of the sforzandi. The second theme is smooth and euphonious. Vladar’s opening solo is bright, dashing in both senses: his brilliant virtuosity is attractive, but it can also leave you feeling breathless. The return of the second theme has a pleasing effusiveness. His more colourful treatment of the development looks forward to Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Like Vogt, he plays Beethoven’s cadenza, timing at 2:48 to Vogt’s 3:13. Vladar’s opening has less impact, yet his semiquaver cascades are an arresting, ‘in the moment’ experience. His second theme here has less poise than Vogt’s, being initially rather tinselly, but its impassioned continuation, inescapably hurtling forward, has a compelling directness.

The slow movement is for me the most moving and intimate of all in Beethoven’s piano concertos. Vogt begins it with repose and contemplation of the deepest, warmest thoughts at best yet assimilating hopes, yearning and sorrows. The tutti orchestra enters with a second theme, a cousin to the first, rather more optimistic yet equally sensitive, with muted violins and violas. The piano’s response is now more cheerful. But is this all really a love story? I felt with Vogt the central section is like a courtship between bassoon and flute, the piano offering a couch of arpeggios alongside pizzicato strings in accompaniment. After the orchestra reprises the second theme, the piano comments with an apparent simplicity which yet grows more forceful, as basic rising scales morph into chromatic ones. This imperative to make an impression is capped by a cadenza written in by Beethoven (tr. 5, 8:04-8:42) which, as Vogt demonstrates, moves from extrovert display to introvert deliberation as the note values lengthen. The lovely coda shows Vogt and his orchestra to be united. In this movement Vladar achieves admirable clarity, not an effect is missed, but this concentration makes everything seem a touch too studied rather than Vogt’s ‘in the moment’ poise achieved through an appreciable flow and smoothness to the music’s line. Vladar’s opening is less magically hushed while his central bassoon and flute courtship is more reserved.

Vogt makes his opening solo presentation of the finale’s rondo theme offhand, quizzical, even cautiously playful. I like this early hint that C minor will eventually be banished to C major, and in the meantime his second solo becomes increasingly scatter-brained. This leads well into the first orchestral tutti’s jolly version of the rondo theme briefly flirting with the major mode. Nothing could be more carefree than the giggling tumbling down of the first episode (1:17) while the second episode (3:19), introduced by the clarinet, shows Beethoven capable of the sunlit pastoral serenity you would later more readily associate with Schubert symphonies. A fugal version of the rondo theme from pp cellos, second violins and first violins in turn restores the minor mode. By the time it reaches the first violins, it has from Vogt a crepuscular nature. He clearly enjoys the contrast between this and the blazing light elsewhere. The Presto coda signals the C major victory with a fast, totally skittish version of the rondo theme Vogt and his orchestra make a fun filled scamper. Vladar, timing the movement at 8:44 in comparison with Vogt’s 9:08, gives us more of a scamper from the outset, a brittle, brilliant, tense, exciting rondo. But I find it difficult to enjoy the first episode at this pace. Vladar’s second episode brings a taste of serenity in its pleasing smoothness: even so, the clarinet and bassoon do not have the warmth of Vogt’s players and for me Vladar’s piano accompaniment is too insistent. The fugue is enjoyably energetic. Overall, however, Vogt’s finale offers more delicacy, subtlety, light and shade and he gets more characterful playing from his orchestra.

The Triple Concerto comes first on this CD and the star billing of its soloists, Vogt with brother and sister Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff, is spotlit on its cover. Beethoven’s union of piano trio and orchestra was an innovation. I felt from Vogt’s direction a keen sense of a musical challenge in the working out of which there is much to enjoy. The orchestra creates the opening theme from small, gently introduced cells, a structural presentation followed by a dramatic one through an expansively gathered crescendo, to which Vogt brings bounce and a sense of fun. The opening theme also generates a second one, quietly proposed by the first violins (tr.1, 1:44) yet more hopeful in outcome. This is a hint of another Beethoven preoccupation: the transformation of themes. For me the real pleasure of the first theme is the winsome, reticent beauty with which it appears on solo cello then violin, to become in turn brighter and more glittering on piano. Similarly, while the second theme bursts forth in a marching manner confidently on full orchestra, it is given more lyrical resilience and richness by the solo cello, made a confetti-like airy fantasy by first violin in upper register yet becomes more reflective mood on rippling piano. After all this the opening theme returns on the cello with greater comeliness and with greater sweetness in the echoing violin. The third theme, still a cousin of the opening one, is a jagged proclamation by cello (5:52), immediately varied by smoother consideration from violin and cello before the piano starts a livelier version which all the soloists relish. Equally memorable is the transition where the first violin slides down pp in triplets then all soloists creep up in semiquavers and amass trills to announce the return of the second theme. The development’s most memorable feature is the cello stating a new, soulful theme (9:33), a good one to have on this CD because you can easily trace it to the first movement of Piano Concerto 3 (tr. 1, 1:08). In Tanja Tetzlaff’s cello it has an aching beauty, softened by the sweeter quality of Christian’s upper register, then made more playful by Vogt’s piano. What I most appreciated overall, however, was the delicacy of much of the playing, particularly that of Christian Tetzlaff, while there is still sufficient contrasting vigour, not least in the bracing coda.

In the Triple Concerto Vladar is joined by violinist Isabelle van Keulen and cellist Julian Steckel. Timing at 16:19 to Vogt’s 17:02 he goes for a slightly faster Allegro. This gives a pleasing shape to an orchestral introduction which, after a rather stern opening, becomes more celebratory and enjoyable and successfully mixes power and smoothness. The soloists are concentrated, neatly expressive, but less emotive than Vogt’s. The second theme is compellingly delivered with great fervour by the cellist, but pianist and violinist do not quite match the poise of Vogt and Christian, while Vladar himself seems to me to bring an unduly hectic quality to some of his semiquaver runs. Yet I liked the greater bite that Steckel brings to the third theme than Tanja, which makes the whole section more gripping. In the development, Steckel’s eloquent presentation of the Piano Concerto 3 borrowing is not complemented by equal character from van Keulen and Vladar, but the recapitulation is attractively blithe and the soloists’ contributions to the coda are stimulating.

In the slow movement the cello’s theme emerges stylishly yet decorously out of the string texture. It is marked molto cantabile, realized through Tanja’s poise with a throbbing yet never sentimentalized, beautifully rounded fullness of tone and magnanimity. I found myself recognizing the first four notes of the Finlandia theme a century before Sibelius but the evocation is comparable, sweetened later by the violin in duet and burnished by horn backing while the piano provides a lapping waterside in triplets before the scene morphs into the stylish dance of the finale. This is all exquisitely done by Vogt and his players and deeply felt. You wonder how the mood can be conjured by the straightforwardness of the notes on the page, but it is. Vladar and his players are not exquisite but more spotlit, emotive and intense, especially Steckel, and they realize the dynamic contrasts more fully. This creates a perfectly viable, if less subtle, interpretation.

The finale is a Rondo alla Polacca graced by the gentle approach of Tanja and then Christian as they in turn present the theme sotto voce, at first assured but then with a questioning instability of key. The orchestra and piano are more playful with a buffoon military style before all take up the rondo theme and everything becomes more boisterous, The first episode (tr. 3, 1:46) is the wispiest of variations on the opening of the rondo theme, where the interplay of Vogt and his soloists is delightfully deft in what on the page looks no more than a torrent of semiquavers. Nevertheless this does make the return of the rondo theme with its initial delicacy welcome, like an old, precious, fragile friend. The second episode (5:06) is where the music catches fire when the violin leads but all the soloists take part in a raunchy gypsy version of the theme, goaded by racy upbeats from all the orchestral strings. Later a faster section (9:59) provides a cadenza for all the soloists with orchestral punctuation before the original tempo is restored for the coda which, as in the first movement, incorporates soloist high jinks. In Vladar’s finale the soloists have an engagingly straightforward directness, matched by joviality and bonhomie in the orchestral tuttis, but I missed the delicacy and deftness displayed by Vogt and his soloists. Vladar’s gypsies in the second episode are heavier, and it goes with less swing and thereafter the return of the rondo theme is squarer. Vladar does make more of a contrast in the faster tempo of the cadenza, eagerly taken up by the soloists to advantage, but then his coda seems rather more formal and careful.

The booklet for Vogt’s CD contains an illuminating interview with him. It shows how deeply he has studied the works and can discuss their relevance today. It includes the comment that it is great that Beethoven can in his music unite ‘the noble soul’ and ‘his gruff side’. So too do Vogt and his colleagues in these exemplary performances.

Michael Greenhalgh



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