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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795-1800, cadenza by Beethoven) [33:21]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 (1790-1798, cadenza by Beethoven) [30:14]
Rondo, WoO 6 (1793, cadenza by Boris Giltburg) [10:04]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019, The Friary, Liverpool, UK
NAXOS 8.574151 [73:51]

Readers will notice in the heading that Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto actually predates the First—it was published after the C major; however, both reached print at different times in 1801. Thus, the B-flat major was designated as the Second and given the higher opus number. Before its eventual publication, Beethoven made several versions of the B-flat major concerto, the first in 1790, then another in 1793. He revised it further and discarded its Rondo finale, replacing it with an altogether different movement. That excised finale is the Rondo that is offered here on track seven. In the end, Beethoven made four versions of the B-flat Concerto and the last one is of course the definitive one we hear today. The C major First also went through various revisions before reaching its final form. Beethoven was meticulous and not easily satisfied, as the history of these works suggests.

Though these are the least popular of his five piano concertos, they are still widely performed and recorded—one need only check concert listings and recording catalogues. They seem neglected only alongside the three masterpieces that Beethoven produced in this genre within just a decade of the early pair's publication. The First is rightly regarded as the stronger of the two concertos, and I have always considered it a minor masterpiece. That said, the Second is only marginally less effective. While lesser pianists may make the first two concertos sound almost second rate, Moscow-born, Israel-based Boris Giltburg turns in very impressive accounts of each here.

Winner of the 2013 Brussels-based Queen Elisabeth Competition, Giltburg has been a very busy artist of late, turning out many recordings. In 2018 I reviewed his Naxos CD of the Rachmaninov Third Concerto and Corelli Variations here (review), and the following year I wrote notices for his Liszt Transcendental Études (review) and his Rachmaninov complete preludes (review), both also on Naxos. Each of his previous recordings, including one of the Prokofiev War Sonatas on Orchid Classics from 2012, which I covered for another classical review journal, was extremely impressive. There are other critically acclaimed recordings he's made for the Naxos label and I've found several videos of Giltburg available on, including excellent performances of the Prokofiev Second and Rachmaninov Third Piano Concertos. I believe I can forecast quite safely that Giltburg will have a stellar career, perhaps on a par with those of pianists like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alfred Brendel, two highly esteemed artists who were also very busy both in the concert hall and recording studio.

Giltburg is a subtle artist who, despite his all-encompassing technique, rarely, if ever, engages in virtuosic grandstanding, preferring instead to interpret the music for maximum artistic yield. Nor does he employ radical or eccentric interpretive approaches. Yet, his performances are never bland but rather quite individual, typically rich in nuance and meaningful detail, and containing insights missing in other versions. His accounts of the two concertos feature well-chosen dynamics, main lines and inner voices perfectly balanced, and judicious tempos. In addition, he realizes these are the works of a youthful Beethoven, not of the mature, profound and serious-minded master of the three concertos that followed. Thus, he points up their lighter, more vivacious characteristics, his dynamics appropriately less weighty and his pacing never too relaxed.

The lyrical second movement of the First has a lovely, dreamy quality, perfectly contrasting with the joyous, witty and spirited character that Giltburg deftly brings out in the opening panel. The finale is a movement that needs subtly employed dynamics to be interpreted effectively, and Giltburg rises to the challenge. He begins robustly and vigorously in the main theme and then finds just the right balances of pianos and fortes for the B section of this brilliant Rondo movement. In the C section and later thematic developments Giltburg is right on target with his lively phrasing, effectively capturing the mixture of wit and elegance.

In character, the B-flat Second Concerto is not much different from the First, though Giltburg in his excellent album notes points out its less colorful and more modest orchestration, and in effect its less sophisticated quality. Still, the Second has plenty of merits and in this performance they come forth resplendently. Giltburg effectively captures the playful and spirited character of the opening movement, again with marvelously judged dynamics, phrasing that seems always right on target in tempo and accenting, and in his subtly wrought legato touch. The ensuing movements are also played brilliantly, especially the spunky finale, wherein the wit and joy emerge with such ebullience.

The Rondo, WoO 6, is heard here not in the Czerny speculative version but in its original 1793 rendition, though with the addition of “...short transitions and a cadenza where indicated by Beethoven,” as Giltburg explains in his notes. Once more, the performance is excellent. Even if the work isn't top-tier Beethoven, it's still a worthwhile piece to hear, not at all a youthful mediocrity.

One essential ingredient to these performances I haven't yet mentioned is the work of conductor Vasily Petrenko, who draws utterly convincing performances from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the ensemble he has served as chief conductor of since 2009. He also holds three other prestigious conducting posts, and in 2021 will become music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It's easy to see why this Russian-born, England-based conductor (b. 1976) has had great success in his relatively brief career: he has a natural sense for phrasing, pointing up essential detail and obtaining proper orchestral balances. Listening to these performances, one would never know the focus of his repertory, at least in the recording studio, has largely been on Russian and British music, this being his first Beethoven disc.

The Naxos sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced between soloist and orchestra, fully state of the art. There is much competition of course, including Perahia (Sony Classical), from 1983-85 (despite his choice to use the then recently discovered overlong but dazzling first movement cadenza by Beethoven in No. 1), Brendel/Rattle (Philips), Brendel/Haitink (Philips), and Buchbinder (C Major video), who also conducts. Personally, I would rank these new accounts of the concertos by Giltburg a very high priority, for not only do you get performances to rank with the best, but also the bonus of the splendidly played Rondo.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Michael Greenhalgh

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