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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795, rev. 1800) [33:21] 
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (c.1788, rev. 1794-5, 1798) [30:14]
Rondo in B flat major, WoO 6 (1793) [10:04] 
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019, The Friary, Liverpool.
Cadenzas by Beethoven, except by Giltburg for WoO 6.
NAXOS 8.574151 [73:51]

In the strings’ introduction of Piano Concerto 1, Vasily Petrenko achieves a smiling nonchalance from careful observation of the staccato crotchets and then the contrasted legato release of the first violins’ rise to high C at the apex of the third phrase, and then a rather luxuriant descent. The tutti repeat is jubilantly beefy, maybe overmuch if you’re familiar with chamber orchestra performances, but it’s marked fortissimo and the trumpets and timpani have a right to be heard. ‘Not a chamber orchestra’ makes the work seem more mainstream Romantic. It presents the second theme (tr. 1, 1:19) demurely but coyly too. The piano enters with a solo, the third theme (2:49), at first gracefully lyrical from Boris Giltburg, but by the third phrase adds a new character to the proceedings, that of impishness. When the orchestra interrupts with the opening theme it’s as if Giltburg says “OK, if you want to play, how about some descending cascades of semiquavers; ha-ha, you can’t catch me and I’ll cock a snook at your theme by adding appoggiaturas.” He’s loving every minute of this, happy to be outlandish, a young man like Beethoven at the time, Beethoven at 25 and Giltburg at 35, relishing his ability. In the development he’s warmly ruminative and a sense of extended contemplation with Petrenko’s spare and delicate orchestral backing is apparent. Until Giltburg’s thunderous octaves which herald the recapitulation and another solo making whoopee. Yet then a pleasurable surprise is the gently savoured treatment of the second theme by orchestra and piano in turn, but from 11:15 just listen to the uninhibited left-hand staccato running quavers.

Giltburg plays the shorter of Beethoven’s two complete extant cadenzas, arguing in his excellent booklet notes that it avoids the danger of the five-times-longer one overpowering the movement. Its compactness in his hands still showcases its kaleidoscope of constantly changing moods from the first theme at the start mixed with glittering cascades, the second theme smoothly reflective, then a jaunty, then a thoughtful manner. Most pianists play the longer cadenza, but Martha Argerich also played the shorter one in her 1985 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppi Sinopoli (Eloquence 482 8145, review). Argerich shows more delicacy and daintiness early on than Giltburg and isn’t at all jaunty, but just as urgent and climactic later.

I compare the performance by Mari Kodama with her husband, Kent Nagano conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, recorded in 2006 but recently reissued with later performances in a box set of the complete cycle (Berlin Classics 0301304BC). Nagano’s strings’ introduction is suaver than Petrenko’s while his tuttis are similarly beefy. His second theme seems that of a wallflower and this character is for me also present in Kodama’s third theme. She’s admirably clean and clear toned but doesn’t add a new focus to the proceedings like Giltburg. What she establishes more charmingly than he is a rapport with the orchestra on an equal footing, where Giltburg’s orchestral companions seem a touch deferential in his presence. Giltburg, however, brings more contrast in the development. In the recapitulation Kodama’s left-hand staccato running quavers for me have too much finesse. She plays the longer cadenza well from its glittering and dramatic start but I became aware of another objection to its length. Composed in 1809, in its 5-minute extent Beethoven’s style is noticeably different. There are stranger harmonies and icier regions encountered, albeit that the first theme emerges from them playfully.

From Giltburg and Petrenko, the piano theme which opens the slow movement is warm and dreamy, almost a lullaby. The orchestra’s response, the subsidiary theme, is more forthright, the clarinets naturally spotlit at the top of the select wind ‘choir’, flutes, oboes and trumpets being absent in this movement. I like this because the first clarinet soon assumes equal partnership as soloist with the piano for much of the movement, a role more extended than in any other Beethoven concerto and a nice change from the conventional piano and orchestra dialogue. The additional benefit is that it allows the piano more freedom to expand the lyricism. This is raptly conveyed by Giltburg as creative action, a freedom in which anything seems possible, aided by a sensitive choice of tempo, contemplative but also progressive. The clarinet solos are also beautifully done, with lovely open tone and I wish the player had been credited.

Kodama/Nagano, timing the movement at 10:59 to the 10:29 of Giltburg/Petrenko, are just a little more deliberate. This results in Kodama not being quite as smooth and poised as Giltburg, though latterly the flow and feel of an aria becomes more appreciable and the clarinet solos melting. Earlier, for me the rhythms are a touch too spiky, the orchestra’s sforzandos in the subsidiary theme over emphatic and rhetorical.

Now here’s a question for your friends: “Where does Beethoven enjoy a samba?” The answer at this point in the review is clearly in the rondo finale of Piano Concerto 1. This was news to me until pointed out by Robert Philip in his enlightening The classical music lover’s companion to orchestral music. The finale’s rondo theme is introduced as a piano solo and Giltburg sets an irrepressibly bubbly Allegro and manner but Petrenko and full orchestra, bristling drums especially, are well up to matching it and slamming on the offbeat sforzandos when they introduce the first episode (tr. 3, 0:53). In the piano’s rendition of this the density of its low bass notes from 1:13 is particularly enjoyable. When next it’s the piano’s turn to introduce new material, this is the second episode (2:37), the first part of which is in copper-bottomed samba rhythm. Compare Edmundo Ros’s famous hit Tico-Tico with his Cuban Orchestra in 1944 (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120551). Apparently, the origins of this Afro-Brazilian dance music can be traced back to the 17th century, but how was it somewhere in Vienna in 1795? And boy does Beethoven mean it, with the marking ben marcato e sempre staccato, in observing which Giltburg is scrupulous. Beethoven soon relaxes the energy level: the second part of the episode is airier, moving from semiquaver to quaver predominance and involves the woodwind, but this is just to offer respite before more high jinks. Petrenko’s monumental signalling of a cadenza is dispatched in 13 seconds by Giltburg’s stalwart piano descents and then exquisite ascents. Giltburg’s final presentation of the rondo theme opening transforms it into a gentle peal of miniature bells; oboes and horns add one of those beauteously glowing Adagio Mozartian postludes, but Petrenko has the last laugh in repeating this as the most rumbustious Allegro tutti of all.

Kodama is less punchy and athletic than Giltburg in her opening solo, yet merrier and more dapper, and in general she still effervescently shimmers along. Nagano’s tuttis suitably blaze at their cadences. The sforzandos in the first episode power it along cogently, albeit without the zestful force of Petrenko’s. Kodama’s low bass notes are as clear as, but rather gruffer than, Giltburg’s. Kodama’s second episode is more muscular, the pointing between left and right hand admirably crisp, but the whole less enjoyed than Giltburg’s and therefore less samba like. The strength of Kodama/Nagano lies in their seamless, slightly breathless presentation of the movement as if a procession of carnival floats, all quite distinctive and periodically returning. Their ending is less vivid than Giltburg/Petrenko’s. Kodama’s final presentation of the rondo theme is more intimate but more musical box like. Nagano’s Adagio passage lacks Petrenko’s poise and his Allegro one is less bludgeoning.

Piano Concerto No. 2 was begun well before Concerto No. 1 but went through a longer period of revision and was published a little later, hence the numbering, though it received its first performance before Concerto No. 1. It’s quieter in manner but in a fine performance such as this one by Giltburg/Petrenko its subtlety is appealing. It’s notable, after their breezy bombast in Concerto No. 1 and now with an orchestra without clarinets, trumpets and timpani, that their concern is for stylish, courtly playing. The first theme with which the orchestra opens the work has a more symphonic than concerto character. Its first element, a tutti phrase, has the masculine authority of brisk dotted rhythms, but its second element, in the first violins alone, has the smooth lyricism of feminine wiles, as if Beethoven’s version of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. The feminine wiles have the fullest melodic exposure at first, given a velvety allure by Petrenko and sounding pure Mozart. But the masculine dotted rhythms return in agitation followed by sforzando exclamations at first in low, then high tessitura, for me the man growling responded to by the lady sighing. Giltburg/Petrenko keep this firmly expressed yet still polite. Both male and female elements of this first theme expand: the male becoming more trimly assertive (tr. 4, 0:54), the female savouring a demurely cool retreat in a new environment of D flat major (1:14), but soon putting the colour back in her cheeks returning to B flat major. The man’s satisfaction at this is signalled by the horns thrice echoing the rhythm of his opening motif. We’re in a state of amicable truce when the piano enters solo with new material, but its melodic curves at first show a kinship with the lady and from Giltburg a much more carefree, even jocular manner. Yet he then turns to the man, whose material he shows capable of growing in agitation but then suavely calms, closing with a mischievous giggle. This is the cue for the orchestra to take control and bring in quite late the movement’s second theme (3:41), given wonderfully urbane treatment by Petrenko which Giltburg can happily elaborate a little in perfect taste. But to stop things getting unctuous there’s another salving injection of D flat major (4:19). By this time, you’ve twigged that Beethoven is constantly pulling the rug from under your feet that you’re expecting to sink snugly into. Then it should be less of a surprise, but it still is, that we get something from the piano we haven’t, unlike in the first concerto, had: an extrovertly virtuoso passage (4:40), a kind of manic development of the rhythmic elements of those two parts of the first theme coalescing. The right hand showers semiquavers, the left hand has a prickly rhythm in whose ‘dotted quaver’ is actually a rest before the semiquaver and then the two hands change roles. Giltburg excels in keeping both hands finely balanced, the semiquavers clear yet relatively smooth against the crisp staccato of the simultaneous more varied rhythms.

The development is signalled by the piano returning to its opening solo (6:10) and Giltburg readily accomplishes his role in providing refined, contented exploration and courteous interplay with the orchestra for long enough for the recapitulation to be welcomed, where again his role is largely one of serene decoration. This all changes with the cadenza (11:30). Beethoven provided just one for this concerto. It’s of moderate duration, Giltburg’s timing being 2:39, but it’s still considerably longer than the 1:03 of Giltburg playing Beethoven’s shorter cadenza for Concerto 1, enough for the different quality of this cadenza written in 1809 to be apparent and unsettling. It begins formally with the first theme’s male element’s rising head motif extended by a falling one and this package subjected to imitative counterpoint and then a freer manner, working to a gaunt climax. Then it turns to the theme’s second, feminine element (12:13) but this is soon overwhelmed by a nightmare ride of scurrying semiquavers. The dotted rhythms of the male element return in rather laboured fashion at first to give battle but gradually become triumphantly assertive before everything becomes more diffuse and exhausted. But the simultaneous semiquaver runs in one hand and more varied rhythms in the other, as in the movement’s development, are still maintained. Giltburg’s contained playing here is impressive: this underlying self-reliance offers a lifeline through the many mood swings. Beethoven’s tutti close of movement following the cadenza is identical to that before the piano’s first entry, but now seems a chilling reminder of a more innocent past.

I have another 2019 recording for comparison, that by Martin Helmchen with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Andrew Manze (Alpha 555). Manze’s first theme male element is somewhat gravelly, the female element pretty but rather timid. Petrenko takes a less marked view of the dynamic contrast between f and p and I think in this work he’s right. Similarly, Manze’s stressing the sforzandos for the man’s growling and the lady’s sighing makes their relatively civil discourse more histrionic. Manze’s quieter treatment of the passage in D flat means its specialness is less apparent than it might be, though the shaping of phrases and throughout interplay between strings and wind is agreeable and the return to B flat pleasant. Helmchen’s first solo is very chic, both melodically acute and rhythmically fresh. He injects more bounce when he enlarges on the male element of the theme and, by observing the pp marking for what I’ve called Giltburg’s giggle before the orchestra introduces the second theme, makes it rather a charming grin. For me the second theme is marred by Manze’s over-stressed sforzandos. However, the second appearance of D flat major, topped by Helmchen’s solo, is fittingly magical. Helmchen’s virtuoso collocation of male and female elements is as vibrant as you could wish, a touch feistier I’d say than Giltburg. In the development the second theme’s sforzandos are still for me too heavy but the continuation and interplay between piano and orchestra is alert and stylish. Helmchen also makes the most of the low bass notes and crescendo leading to the recapitulation. For me, Helmchen’s treatment of Beethoven’s cadenza is more riveting than Giltburg’s. He begins with more bounce, consistently with his earlier treatment of the male element of the theme, but combines this with a sense of measure and reflection which brings more sense of purpose to the clarity of the imitative counterpoint and a more forcefully stated climax to the male element. The experience of the female element evolves with more excitement than nightmare. The impact of the whole is weightier, more cogent in development and long becalming. Giltburg’s more contained approach is consistent with the Giltburg/Petrenko interpretation of the whole movement, but arguably it allows less effectively for the special nature of this later written cadenza.

The slow movement is nothing short of miraculous in what it achieves from just one theme. For me it’s about establishing and considering a state of rapture. Petrenko’s orchestral introduction is both rapt and affectionate yet also enigmatic. Giltburg’s initiative in elaboration (tr. 5, 1:49) articulates the depth of feeling and avowal that underpins the raptness. Petrenko’s phrases are generally simple; Giltburg’s finely poised presentation shows the complex web of emotions lying beneath them. The slow, simple presentation of the theme by oboes, bassoons and horns, has the quality and density of a chorale. But at 5:36, the Mozartian spicing of chromaticism in the piano is a new feature and the territory of the operatic aria comes explicitly into view. The coda is exquisite, the piano marked soft but con gran espressione with a line of constantly interrupted phrases, as if dissecting and adoring the expression in the process of its creation and also appreciating the absolute stillness around. Giltburg graphically conveys this.

All the same, with Giltburg/Petrenko the question arises, at 9:48 is their Adagio too measured? At 8:41, Helmchen/Manze are a deal less so. I like the flow this produces but, as in the first movement, for me Manze’s care with dynamic contrasts and, to a lesser extent Helmchen’s, are such that I feel rather confronted by a drama, where Giltburg/Petrenko more subtly suggest it. Manze’s orchestral introduction, the Onyx recording of more perspective and thinner in tone, is more sober and has a careworn quality. Helmchen’s solos are limpidly reflective and in this attractive, but in being so, unlike Giltburg, the piano’s elaborations aren’t then a vehicle for moving the music forward. I feel a more of a mission to communicate in Giltburg’s playing, a singer presenting an aria, his second solo could be from a Mozart piano concerto and through this sense of progression I feel more rapport between soloist and orchestra, their joint exploration. Manze’s ‘wind chorale’ is gratifyingly expressive, as are the later piano solos, yet the more emotive passages seem more recollected in tranquillity than present. Helmchen’s more hushed softness in the con gran espressione is like that of an individual in a vast space, one soul in a universe. His playing is beguiling with a vivid sense of inner communion, yet this is to be witnessed rather than shared. Ultimately, I feel this movement is a little too crafted by Helmchen/Manze. I prefer the more upfront, wholehearted simplicity of Giltburg/Petrenko.

At Allegro molto rather than the Concerto No. 1’s Allegro, Concerto No. 2’s rondo finale could be more oppressive. But it isn’t because of the dazzling piano part which seems to have been made for Giltburg. The rondo theme itself with its opening dogged syncopation and second phrase’s gauche repeated notes emphasises the oddball, but after Giltburg gives it a first outing, Petrenko shows it can be cheery and quite elegant in full orchestral dress. Between them Giltburg and Petrenko supply a crisp, muscular zest tempered by joie de vivre. This is, however, a piano-centric movement. In the first episode (tr. 6, 0:24) the orchestra tries to relax the mood, but the piano will have none of this. Giltburg then launches into the second episode (0:51), which the orchestra can join before he turns skittish and only then returns to the rondo theme. The third episode (2:15) is a kind of apotheosis of the rondo theme with immensely confident, powerhouse syncopation combined with throwaway appoggiatura headed phrases, after which it trickles away into trills and droplets of quavers to ease into the return of the rondo theme and first episode, to which the piano makes a new response (3:40). Later it offers the tenderest, most demure version of the rondo theme, which Giltburg makes slower and softer, but this is only a ploy for the romping festivities. Giltburg/Petrenko’s presentation is refined and ingenious.

Helmchen, like Giltburg, does a pretty good job as the main focus of the finale. His approach is calmer; nearly all he does is gracefully dancelike, except for the clusters of semiquavers alternated between left and right hand in the latter part of the second episode which are a shimmering marvel. The problem for me is that this leaves Manze’s stylish orchestral backing relatively subdued. Sforzandos in the tuttis of the rondo theme are for me rather underdone, though I’d say just right in the second episode from both Helmchen and Manze. But to take an overall impression, listening again to Giltburg/Petrenko made me aware of the fun and bite which Helmchen/Manze’s over refinement jettisons.

What Beethoven threw out in the evolution of Concerto No. 2 is the Rondo in B flat which Giltburg/Petrenko provide as a bonus track. In his booklet note Giltburg plausibly suggests this might have been because its jovial and gallant manner didn’t provide sufficient contrast for a finale after the poetic slow movement of the revised concerto. An unusual feature of this first Rondo is its extensive Andante section and in his Master Musicians’ book on Beethoven Barry Cooper interestingly suggests this may have offered a slow movement element in the original concerto whose slow movement as we know it today hadn’t been written. This original Rondo opens with an upper register piano solo of soft, tinselly innocence. However, when delivered loudly and orchestrally, it makes a good hunting or drinking song. But not at first: the orchestra treads water and throws in a few sforzandos to keep you awake, before a second part of the theme (tr. 7, 0:24) with blithe and deft syncopation in the first violins followed by a brisk progress to a cadence. Now, a first episode (0:36) featuring the flute and 2 oboes in a four-note motif. The piano takes this relaxed material and elaborates it with animation, a role Giltburg relishes. The syncopated style of the second part of the rondo theme returns quite silkily, marked dolce in the first violins in a third episode (1:17), but it’s the livelier close that the piano takes up, goading the orchestra into zippier celebration which Giltburg can then top with brilliant semiquaver runs above the tune in left-hand octaves. At a pause which signals an Eingang, i.e. short improvisation, Giltburg adds some engagingly toying decoration, repetition and variation of earlier material (2:17-2:31). The piano then returns to the rondo theme, but the orchestra’s response is to create a transition to the Andante section.

This Andante (2:53) is a central total change of mood in E flat major, a benign counterbalance to the jovial activity of the rondo theme. The melody has a simple but comely shape and the scoring for strings, flute, two oboes and bassoons is so mellifluously balanced I could mistake it for Schubert. Giltburg responds to it with a kind of affectionate respect before gradually becoming more waggish, notably in a variation in staccato semiquavers (4:32), then an airier, chromatic variation (4:59) incorporating demisemiquavers, after which comes a second Eingang. Here Giltburg (5:31-5:50) chooses to retrace his opening solo more bluesy in harmonic colouring, then start the fast notes to transition to the return of the rondo theme whose Allegro now seems startlingly fast. The recapitulation of all the major elements ushers in a pause for a cadenza which Giltburg supplies (7:36), decorously and briefly mixing these elements with pianistic high jinks, Beethoven’s material beginning again at 8:15. The coda is indeed jolly, but courtly taste and piano lead are still preserved.

Now for comparison I return full circle to Kodama/Nagano, but this time in a 2019 recording in their box set. Their timing of 8:39 looks a deal faster than Giltburg/Petrenko’s 10:04, but this is mainly explained by the absence of Eingangs, Giltburg’s taking 0:14 and 0:19, and cadenza, Giltburg’s taking 0:38. Kodama only plays a few brief cadential decorations not by Beethoven, but neither does she improvise at times where Beethoven expected this. So, Kodama/Nagano are really just 0:14 faster. Kodama’s rondo theme is light and dainty and Nagano’s orchestral response has dancing and gusto. There’s a shade more excitement about the progression of the piece than with the more cultivated Giltburg/Petrenko. However, this comes at some cost to the clarity of the piano’s articulation: as soon as those semiquaver runs kick in, they sound a mite scrambled. Nagano’s Andante opening lacks the natural flow and assured, svelte quality of Petrenko’s: when the woodwind enters the crescendos and decrescendos are for me overcooked and the piece becomes rather bullish. Kodama treats the piano’s first variation more gently than Giltburg, which is fine, but her second variation is more muscular and thereby less magical than his. This leads me to a straightforward summing up for this entire Naxos CD: while Petrenko supports with customary flair, it’s Giltburg’s playing that’s special. 

Michael Greenhalgh

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