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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 [37.51]
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19 [30.24]
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 [37.41]
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58 [35.46]
Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ [39.41]
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 4-20 February 2010, Philharmonie, Berlin
Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc + Concert Video Blu-ray Disc in High Definition with Mitsuko Uchida interview + Download code for high resolution audio file of the entire album + 7 Day Ticket for Digital Concert Hall
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR180241 CD/BD-A [182 mins] Blu-ray [215 mins]

The writer of the promotional material for this set extols the Berliner Philharmoniker collaboration with Mitsuko Uchida in the complete set Beethoven piano concertos as “one of the most spectacular projects” during Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure as chief conductor. Uchida first performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1984; the recordings here were made in 2010 at four live concerts at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Uchida served as artist-in-residence for Berliner Philharmoniker during the 2008/09 season and the collaboration between her and Rattle in some thirty performances was evidently more intensive than the conductor’s work with any other instrumental soloist.

Uchida first came to my attention with her acclaimed set of the Mozart piano sonatas made in 1983-87 at Henry Wood Hall, London, on Philips. I have also admired her set of the Mozart Piano Concertos with English Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate, also produced on Philips in the 1980s. More recently, I have greatly enjoyed her five-album series of ten of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, begun in 2008 with the Cleveland Orchestra. Uchida was recorded live on Decca at Severance Hall, Cleveland, playing and directing from the piano. The first album in the series, Nos. 23 and 24, won a Grammy award in 2011 for Best Instrumental Soloist’s Performance (with Orchestra).

Released on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label, this high-end, hardcover edition comprises several features: three standard audio CDs, a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc in uncompressed, original studio master quality and a second Blu-ray disc containing the performances videoed in High Definition and a filmed interview with Uchida, plus a personal code for downloading high resolution audio files of the entire album and a Seven Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service.

I recall Uchida recording the set of five Piano Concertos with conductor Kurt Sanderling and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in 1994/98 for Philips. Uchida speaks of how Beethoven’s “optimism, looking upwards in absolute tragedy, the ability to see heaven from hell; this power, this vision is something that cannot be found elsewhere.”

Even though it has a later opus number the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19 actually predates the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 by two to three years. Composed circa 1795/1800, the No.1 feels much more mature than its predecessor and is exceeded in length only by his Piano Concerto No. 5Emperor’. It is thought that Beethoven himself was the soloist at its première in 1795 at Vienna. Published in 1801, the score bears a dedication to his pupil Countess Anna Louise Barbara ‘Babette’ Keglevics. The Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the score in 1884 with soloist Caroline Montigny-Rémaury under Joseph Joachim. In this performance, Uchida highlights the uplifting and positively carnivalesque character of the score’s outer movements, while playing the central Largo with dignity and unerring tenderness.

Written over the period 1786/1801, the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19 had a long and protracted creation, appearing in four versions. It is the shortest in length of the five piano concertos; the booklet notes give the first verified performance as Prague in 1798 with Beethoven as soloist. It is not known when the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the score. Playing with clarity, convincing freshness and unfailing sincerity, Uchida is eminently suited to this repertoire, communicating a near-spiritual quality to the heartfelt central Adagio.  

Beethoven first began work on the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 in 1796 which was eventually completed in 1804. It is a work that sees Beethoven pushing the boundaries of piano writing. He himself was the soloist for its introduction at Vienna in 1803. This must have been a remarkable concert that also contained premières of both the Symphony No. 2 and oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The notes give Josef oder Casimir Hofmann as soloist in the first performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker given in 1887 under Franz Mannstaedt. Uchida gives a colourful tonal quality to her playing which comes across as confident yet sensitive. Notable is the engagingly calm and reflective mood given to the Largo while the joyful playing of the Finale: Rondo has real gravitas.

Written in 1805/06, the Piano Concerto No.4, Op. 58 was completed just prior to the start of the Violin Concerto. Beethoven was again the soloist who introduced the work in 1807 at a private concert at Palais Lobkowitz, Vienna. The public première was not given until 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, with Beethoven once more as soloist. It was several decades later in 1882 when the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the work with Anna Grosser as soloist and Karl Klindworth conducting. Totally responsive to the demands of this G major score, Uchida demonstrates she is a player of impeccable style. Absorbing and radiant, this is a performance of deep concentration; Uchida handles Beethoven’s rhythmic diversity without ever resorting to unnecessary haste. Uchida’s underlining of the melancholy of the Andante and is boldly compelling, and the Finale: Rondo with its markedly percussive writing, is compelling, yet not without expressive warmth.

Beethoven wrote the Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ in 1809 during a terribly testing period in his life. Napoleon’s armies had reached the gates of Vienna which was under siege and suffering weighty artillery bombardment; it seems that Beethoven sought shelter in cellars. Evidently a publisher first named the work the ‘Emperor, and the nickname has stuck. Beethoven’s life as a virtuoso pianist had ended owing to his profound deafness, so it was the dedicatee, the gifted Erzherzog Rudolf von Österreich, who was the soloist at the first performance in 1811 given at Palais Lobkowitz, Vienna. It wasn’t until as late as 1882 that the Berliner Philharmoniker performed the score in a concert given by soloist Sofie Menter under Karl Klindworth. Little of Beethoven’s torment is in evidence in the ‘Emperor’; with writing of unerring boldness and grandeur it is one of his most heroic works. Uchida is undaunted by the challenges of this magnificent and defiant score. Conspicuous are the liberal reserves of energy that Uchida commits to the massive opening movement and the celebratory Finale: Rondo and I relish the inspiring sense of poetry and poised control she applies to the Adagio.

For these live performances given over three weeks, Uchida brought her own Steinway Concert Grand, which emits a gloriously rich sound. Uchida’s approach to the slow movements seems measured but only Nos. 4 and 5 are actually slower than the majority of the accounts in my collection. I doubt whether restrained pace would work in the hands of lesser pianists. Overall, these are beautiful performances, intelligently probing with plenty of subtle nuance contrasted with a glittering vivacity in the outer movements. Uchida’s collaboration with Berliner Philharmoniker is clearly both a secure and a fruitful one, with a sense of total involvement and you would be hard-pushed to tell that this was the first time that soloist and orchestra had played these works together. Rattle conducts modern instruments here but uses some of the insights from historically informed performance, such as a noticeably spare use of vibrato and an orchestra of sixty-two players for No. 5 ‘Emperor’. The deep resonance of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s low strings underpins these impressive performances which are steeped in the Austro/German sound tradition; the readings have real gravitas, with textures that never seem thin and contain intensity, impressive tonal power. The pleasingly consistent the sound quality is first class, having clarity, body and an excellent balance between piano and orchestra. Although these are live performances, I could detect no extraneous noise and applause at the conclusion of each work has been removed.  

The video directors and production engineers for the concert video of the 2018 performances on the Blu-ray disc are exceedingly skilled at their work. As I have come to expect from this source, the High Definition picture quality of the concert video is entirely satisfying with a wide array of telling shots, including sensible and appropriate close-ups together with the usual choice of stereo and surround sound. Described as a bonus video, the seventeen-minute-long interview with Uchida in 2017 held in English was interesting, too - I notice that it’s given erroneously as twelve minutes in the liner notes. At this point, I haven’t used the personal code provided for downloading the high-resolution audio files. The integral booklet in German and English contains plenty of photographs and information including two helpful and interesting essays entitled ‘Leave fate knocking on the door - On Beethoven’s Piano Concertos’ written by Simon Tönies and ‘This music is for you - Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with Mitsuko Uchida and Sir Simon Rattle’ by Benedikt von Bernstorff.

Collectors of Beethoven works have an extensive, often bewildering choice. Brimful with challenges, recording Beethoven’s much-loved Piano Concertos seems to be a rite of a passage for many soloists with a seemingly endless stream of recordings entering the catalogues, including a substantial number of complete sets. In recent decades, a number of digitally remastered mono recordings have also resurfaced. Many complete sets are priced extremely competitively, too. These are unquestionably impressive performances, high on sincerity with dignity, expression and often poetry and they join several complete sets that I find especially insightful. As is the case with Uchida, I tend to prefer performances that explore deeper beneath the surface precision of the score and communicate vivid tonal shading, demonstrated for example in the recordings from Pollini/Abbado on DG; Perahia/Haitink on Sony; Gilels/Szell-Ludwig on EMI, Kempff/Leitner on DG and Barenboim/Klemperer on EMI. If pushed, my principal choice is Maurizio Pollini, for his unfailing musicianship and level of drama, superbly accompanied by Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado. Pollini was recorded live in 1992/93 at Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. Another excellent set is Murray Perahia’s with Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink, recorded in 1983/86 at Amsterdam on Sony Classical. Perahia provides exciting and deeply expressive playing with a lightness of touch that delights the ear and the engineers supply warm and pleasingly clear sonics. Uchida has definitely developed from her 1990s recordings with Kurt Sanderling; these new accounts having a more consistent level of concentration and greater memorability.

This high-end merchandise is as beautifully presented as I have come to expect from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. With Uchida in such outstanding form I can imagine this being a much-valued set for devotees of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos.  

Michael Cookson

Details:
3 CDs:
Recorded in 24bit / 48 kHz
1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc:
Beethoven Piano Concertos 1–5 - In high resolution lossless studio master quality -
Sound options:
2.0 PCM Stereo - 24bit/48 kHz & 5.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio 24bit/48 kHz
1 Concert Video Blu-ray disc:
Beethoven Piano Concertos 1–5 - In High Definition Video produced for Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall [203.00]
Picture Format: Full HD 1080 / 60i – 169
Sound options: LPCM Stereo 2.0ch, 48 kHz/16bit & DTS-HD Master Audio, 5.0 Surround, 48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Bonus Video - Mitsuko Uchida talks (in English) about Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with Tobias Möller in 2017 [17.59]
Audio Download:
24-bit / 48 kHz download code for high resolution audio files of the entire album
Digital Concert Hall:
7 Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's video streaming service
Hardcover Edition:
24.5 x 15.5 x 3.1 cm: 520g (approx.)
Integral Booklet:
56 pages - Liner notes and essays in German & English

 

 



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