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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Six Piano Concertos
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 [32:23]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19 [27:23]
Rondo for Piano and Orchestra in B Major WoO 6 [8:47]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [33:41]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Major, Op. 73 Emperor [35:43]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 [33:07]
Piano Concerto in D Major, Op. 61a (Violin concerto arranged by the composer) [38:54]
Gottlieb Wallisch (fortepiano)
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. 2017-20, Vienna, Austria
CPO 555 329-2 [3 CDs: 210:05]

As we approach the halfway point in this year of celebrations, there seems to be no let up on new recordings of Beethoven’s music. This release may be the fourth of the complete piano concertos. There are two with fortepiano, although this recording is more complete: it includes not only the B Major Rondo but the D Major Concerto Op. 61a. Gottlieb Wallisch employs three original period fortepianos, two by Conrad Graf and a Viennese instrument by Franz Boyer. Martin Haselböck founded the Orchester Wiener Akademie. It has gained an international reputation, and participated in over 100 recordings.

The first disc opens well with a fine recording of the First and Second Piano Concerti. The piano, an 1818 Graf, was Beethoven’s own instrument borrowed from the Beethovenhaus in Baden. The studio recordings have a live feel about them, and a nice natural ambiance which gives the impression of a true performance. The piano sounds fine and Wallisch has a good partnership with the orchestra, but the instrument sounds a little too light at times. The combination works well in the less boisterous movements, especially in both slow movements but it needs a little more heft or volume in the outer movements. Even so, the final movement Rondo comes across really well. The disc culminates with the B Major Rondo. It follows nicely the last movement of the 2nd Concerto, and again gets a spirited, compelling performance.

The second disc begins with an engaging performance of Concerto No. 3, played on a slightly newer Graf instrument from 1823/1824. The piano has a marginally heavier timbre, especially useful in the Fifth Concerto which is programmed second on this disc. The piano has a little more richness and depth of sound than the earlier model, and this leads to a rather better balance between the soloist and the orchestra. The instrument shines in the C minor Concerto, which has always been my favourite. This is especially so in the second movement Largo in a splendid performance backed up by a very good rendition of the Rondo finale. The opening of the E flat Concerto is handled well. The piano gives a colourful and well-figured account of the opening gesture; the piano is big enough, but only just. Those used to a modern grand piano might want a little more, but I found the sound of Graf more than adequate. Again, it is in the second movement Adagio where Wallisch and the instrument shine with a nicely measured performance. The piano theme is picked out well especially where the piano rises above the orchestra. The transition between the Adagio and the third movement Rondo. Allegro is handled really well. The delicate announcement of the main theme appears at the end of the second movement only to be boldly stated at the opening of the third. Here the piano performs very well indeed, with a nice rich and clear sound throughout until the rousing conclusion.

Concerto No. 4 in G Major comes first on the third disc. In the opening, Gottlieb Wallisch is quite sympathetic in his approach. The instrument, a Bayer piano, comes across really well and stands its own ground against the orchestra. The instrument can be a little plumy at times in this concerto. That leads to the occasional slight buzz, especially in the second movement Andante, but it sounds fine in the transition into the final Rondo. Here everything comes together well. The piano sounds good. The soloist and the orchestra show a wonderful understanding in what is one of Beethoven’s most memorable final movements as it rushes to a most pleasing conclusion. The final work in the set is controversial: the piano version of the Violin Concerto. I remember reading that the Violin concerto was originally designed for the piano; the composer changed and augmented the piano part of what he had already composed after he received a commission for a violin concerto. This performance supports the argument: it sounds perfectly at home on the piano, and the Bayer piano may play its part in this. The booklet notes clearly state that the work was written originally for the violin during November and December of 1806, only to be revised in May the following year, while the first edition of the piano version did not appear until August 1808. Whatever one thinks, the performing version of this concerto should be listened to and enjoyed, and not just by completists. The outer movements in this performance are particularly strong. One soon forgets about the violin altogether, and the performers make the most of this wonderful music.

This is a really useful and enjoyable set. Gottlieb Wallisch and the Orchester Wiener Akademie give strong and committed performances under the direction of Martin Haselböck. The tempi are generally swifter than the norm, and that leads to some exciting passage work and scintillating playing. Just listen to the Rondo of the Violin Concerto to see what I mean. This may be in part due to the more clipped sound of the piano, and in any case the result is most rewarding. People who insist on modern instruments will probably complain about the pianos, but their sound is generally very pleasing. The orchestral sound is big and bold; the sound of the horn and the rap of the timpani are a highlight. It is all brought together very well by Haselböck. The recorded sound is also fine, and so are the erudite booklet notes, especially the way they are divided into different aspects of interest that firmly place the concertos in Beethoven’s piano world. Interesting information about the pianos and the recording process is also included, all of which aids the listener's enjoyment.

Stuart Sillitoe

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