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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795, rev. 1800) [34:40]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-6) [34:44]
Martin Helmchen (piano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Andrew Manze
rec. 2018/19, Teldex Studio, Berlin (1), Berliner Philharmonie (4)
Cadenzas by Beethoven.
Reviewed as download.
ALPHA 575 [69:38]

This second CD in the Beethoven piano concertos’ cycle of Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze has a particularly instructive coupling: melodies of innocence meet those of experience. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 1 is, above all, the work of a young man: the freshness of one eager to make his mark. Piano Concerto 4 has a different radiance: that of wisdom, shown in the roundedness of the interrelation of its themes and movements.

Like many of Mozart’s piano concertos, Beethoven’s first begins with a march. But Beethoven adds a dimension by beginning it softly in just the strings, then repeating it loud by full orchestra. So, the thrill of the anticipation of a troop approaching is confirmed by its vivid, immediate presence. Even from a distance, Manze’s troop is sprightly, yet with a touch of elegance in the march’s third phrase. The troop’s full presence is firm, yet still stylish. I wouldn’t object to it being still louder, given the marking is ff, but enjoy the finesse of the first violins’ smiling, cascading semiquaver descents with sforzandos. The soft second theme (tr. 1, 1:13) is demure and the woodwind’s support of it lovely, while the ensuing ff, which really is this time, sweeps us back to the throng. The third theme (2:10), another march, has more burly bounce. The fourth theme (2:41) is the piano’s solo entry, a nice soft contrast, but almost immediately grows skittish. The clever bit is that it’s a kind of mirror image of the second theme which mocks it and then goes on to mock the opening march theme as well, on both occasions with right hand appoggiaturas. Helmchen delivers this lightly and decorously, but the mischief is still clear. Enjoy his ornamentation of a repeated phrase (3:36) and then the oboes’ response (3:41) to the piano’s semiquaver volleys like snide, clucking hens. When the second theme returns, we discover it had been incomplete, because Helmchen serenely completes it. In the musing which follows the return of the third theme Helmchen’s left-hand semiquaver descents (5:00) are vivid without marring the right-hand elegance, the sforzandos clear yet unforced, making it easier to go into brief reverie before the tutti ends the exposition.

The development (6:56) is dramatized appropriately: Helmchen reflects and considers impassively, Manze’s woodwind entries appear anxious and Helmchen meditates softly, yet it’s his ff change of direction and cascade that leads the full orchestra into the recapitulation, a rosier second theme in the orchestra and assured piano take-up and more punch given to its sforzandos in the expansion of the third theme. Beethoven completed two cadenzas for this movement. Helmchen selects the shorter one (12:32), which makes a change because it rarely features in recordings. It begins brilliantly with the motif opening the first theme in the left hand punctuated by right hand semiquavers’ decoration, then the hands’ roles exchanged, then quickly goes into a cool recall (12:44) which highlights the legato beauty of the second theme. The third theme appears dolce (13:09), extrovert strutting now transformed to quiet flowering, and I think of Lisztian reminiscences. Now comes a curiosity. The short cadenza ends at 13:39, but at this point Helmchen adds the ending of Beethoven’s long cadenza from bar 116 in the Bärenreiter urtext, so a cadenza timing at 1:07 now takes 2:05. There is no reference to this in the accompanying booklet and I don’t know if Helmchen is following a specific edition or, more likely, this is his initiative. There’s nothing wrong with this: a cadenza is, after all, the performer’s opportunity for free rein provided that it’s based on themes in the movement, but it’s helpful if documentation with a recording makes clear what is being presented.

Given the vibrancy of this concerto, I decided to compare a 2019 live recording in a complete cycle from Jayson Gillham with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Carter (ABC Classic 481 8533). The opening from Carter, pleasantly convivial, could to advantage be softer and the third phrase is forced a bit, yet his troop’s full presence is ff in all its beefy might. His second theme is more guarded and wary than Manze’s, but this allows his third theme to seem more contented. Gillham brings to his piano solo entry with the fourth theme an attractive simplicity and then a jolliness that’s more playful than Helmchen’s skittishness, but Carter’s oboes aren’t comic like Manze’s. Gillham’s completion of the second theme isn’t as serene as Helmchen’s, partly because he’s very scholarly here, playing F as its top note (CD1, tr. 1, 4:16) because that was the highest note on the fortepiano when the work was written, which makes a rather bluesy effect as the note expected and Beethoven really wanted, as shown in the recapitulation in the lower home key (11:24), was F sharp. In the musing which follows the return of the third theme, Gillham’s balance between the hands is good but he stabs a little more at the sforzandos than Helmchen, albeit making for a greater contrast in the ensuing reverie.

The development from Gillham/Carter is more dramatic and creepier than Helmchen/Manze’s but their second theme recapitulation, though festive, is a bit stiffer. Gillham plays the long cadenza and you hear why it’s most players’ preference with a more imitative and then dramatic approach to the movement’s opening motif. Gillham revels in it as powerful, exciting stuff, but Helmchen would be entitled to point out, as comparison shows, that Beethoven has moved more away from his original and its playful element has become more obsessive. The treatment of the second theme is similarly different, its completion now more wistful. The late contrasts between right and left hand, originally heard after the third theme, are now more urgent and bitter.

The slow movement I hear as a love story. The piano’s opening theme, smooth, flowing, and expansive from Helmchen, is that of a lover. The orchestral, parental response from Manze, a little faster and a subsidiary theme, is eager to sympathise but its cadences call the lover to order, saying ‘pull yourself together’. The other lover, a cantabile solo clarinet, makes a more expansive, gorgeously played rejoinder (tr. 2, 1:15) and the piano replies with a free variation of the love theme (1:34). Despite orchestral attempts at cooling the relationship, piano and clarinet continue exchanging phrases of ardour. The clarinet is so convincing in affirming faithfulness that the orchestra accepts, leaving the two lovers the joy of exchanging vows (8:34). I can’t think of another example in Beethoven’s piano concertos where the piano’s relationship with another solo instrument is so close and sustained. Helmchen and Manze give us a rosy courtship; the parents stay ever polite.

Gillham’s opening theme is smooth, thoughtful, appreciative but a bit internalized, bashful perhaps. I realize Manze’s strategy to take the subsidiary theme a shade faster is a good one: at a steadier tempo Carter seems cautious and the cadences don’t offer the lover a clear direction. Unsurprisingly, the clarinet now is also a little restrained. Gillham opens out more to rescue this situation, Carter does now admonish, yet rather woodenly. But Gillham has succeeded: the interchange with the clarinet is now very pleasant, relished with no concern for the surrounding stiffness. The piano musing is appreciably savoured, the ornamentation of its line in the recapitulation sensitively delineated so we feel the courtship between the lovers. The clarinet’s affirmation is cogent and so then is the orchestra’s, albeit characteristically stiffly articulated.

Mozart brought to the piano concerto finale a vogue for greater relaxation and humour. Beethoven took it a stage further in boisterousness. As with the slow movement, a piano solo introduces the rondo theme. From the outset Helmchen is gleefully and spicily eager. Manze’s immediate response is that he’s fully up for this. But the stylishness that has throughout underpinned this performance remains: when Manze introduces the first episode (tr. 3, 0:54) the sforzandos are clear but not over bounced. Similarly, Helmchen’s low notes in his response are warm and distinct but not overegged. Helmchen introduces the second episode (2:40) whose first part is, amazingly, in samba rhythm, ben marcato e sempre staccato, but also in this account you can enjoy the active interlacing of contributions by the flute and first bassoon, paving the way for more woodwind involvement in the airier second part of this episode. Beethoven’s next joke is a ver grand full orchestra signal for a piano cadenza which turns out to be very short. But with ever an ear to style Helmchen takes this relatively expansively, lasting 19 seconds where, for example, Boris Giltburg takes only 13. However, I like Helmchen’s creaminess and delicacy, which creates more contrast when his emphasis on the staccato aspects of his final full presentation of the theme makes it more jocular before contrast again of his final presentation of the opening of the theme (8:16) as an exquisitely refined peal of bells.

Gillham’s opening solo is frisky yet, in comparison with Helmchen, a mite self-contained, Gillham’s emphasis on articulation taking a little of the spice away. In the first episode Carter and Gillham’s sforzandos are neat and light, yet Gillham’s low notes are at first for me too prominent, though only at first. Gillham provides plenty of swing and a touch of abandon to the samba rhythm of the first part of the second episode, but I prefer Helmchen’s greater contrast in the second part where Gillham remains very lively. Gillham takes 17 seconds to despatch the cadenza and this is dexterously done. His final presentation of the opening theme is an alluringly intimate moment.

For me Concerto 4 is the most original of Beethoven’s concertos, with the widest emotional range. The opening is a key passage. The first concerto that dares to begin with a piano solo. The whole, brief solo is like a preces, a short prayer such as ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’, to the orchestra’s very full response, ‘And our mouth shall show forth thy praise’. Or any individual’s wish and community affirmation you like. Martin Helmchen’s prayer is soft and gentle, yet there’s momentum and style to its delivery. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester response is gentle too while the early sforzando (tr. 4, 0:29) Manze makes an affectionate rather than bullish outpouring, which catches the mood well. Then there’s the chirpy entries of oboe and flute and the coming together of the orchestra in affirmation. This latter here I feel is a little formal: I’d like more sense of flowering. However, Manze introduces the second theme (1:14) stylishly with warmth at first in the strings, then more spring in first oboe and flute, a parallel to the presentation of the first theme; but again, I feel the following crescendo might flower more. The piano’s second entry is as surprising as its opening one: springing out of the orchestral reprise of the first theme without ceremony. But Helmchen’s espressivo passage shortly after (3:57) is well poised. Against the orchestra’s second outing of the second theme Helmchen is more playful, then delicate in his presentation in relation to nicely balanced oboe and bassoon solos (5:23). He’s then able to become more exultant as sforzandos become prominent in the left hand, whose low entries have richness without being alarming. This sets up his gently reflective pearliness in the right hand’s high tessitura version, dolce e con espressione (6:30) for the melodic heart of the second theme, while with a similar reflection he can face with equanimity the sudden cloud with which he opens proceedings yet again for the development (7:24).

I compare another recording made in 2019, that by Elizabeth Sombart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Vallet (Signum Classics SIGCD 620). They emphasise more the latter aspect of the Allegro moderato marking: their development starting at 8:15. Sombart’s opening ‘prayer’ is full-toned and mellow. Vallet and the RPO’s response is in sympathy with this, but the early sforzando is for me a little too stabbing, the oboe and flute entries less excited than Manze’s. Vallet’s crescendo is more of a flowering than Manze’s, but the overall orchestral articulation is more formal. Vallet’s second theme is rather deliberate, but the wind glow and there is spring to the phrasing. Sombart brings a fair, gazing quality to her first espressivo passage, but her semiquaver runs thereafter are for me somewhat effortful. Her accompaniment to the second theme is moderately playful, but later the oboe and bassoon solos are less well defined than with Helmchen/Manze. Sombart’s later sforzandos I find too loud, but others may prefer the contrasting frisson thus created.

Regarding Beethoven’s first movement cadenza, Helmchen performs the first and longest of the three Beethoven wrote down, probably in 1809. This begins (13:54) with the first theme presented in single notes in the right hand and Allegro, which Helmchen notes, making it now jolly and companionable. In turn this results in the second theme (14:30), presented at its original Allegro moderato, seeming rather cool as it’s toyed with and highly decorated. This decorative style is now applied to the return of the first theme, Allegro again, built urgently over a gradual crescendo to a climax with the piano bass here becoming almost orchestral in strength. But after this, and even more memorably, that melodic heart of the second theme (16:15) glows softly before going into the minor, followed by a transitional passage played with great delicacy and finesse by Helmchen to lead into the orchestral return, whereupon the piano immediately delivers this theme back in the major. This is one of the loveliest examples of crafting between cadenza and orchestral resumption.

Sombart performs the same cadenza, taking 3:40 only marginally faster than Helmchen’s 3:46, but with the early contrast between the first and second themes and their moods less marked. Later, however, she builds the crescendo of the first theme with power and urgency, gives equal clarity to the special quality of the heart of the second theme, while taking a more dramatic approach, with a more fateful quality in the left-hand fanfares, leading towards the close, albeit less delicacy than Helmchen in the transitional passage.

The entire slow movement is a key passage in its dramatic confrontation between a body of authority, the orchestra, and supplicating individual, the pianist. This extends my analogy for the first movement of prayer and response. In the slow movement the comparison generally made is that of Orpheus taming the Furies at the entrance to the Underworld. The authorities at the start put up a stern barrier against the individual, whose pleading, however, is so eloquent they retreat. But then the individual in a soliloquy reveals the anguish, the magnitude of his experience, which is the foundation of that eloquence. And it’s the weakness that gets a response from the authorities of empathy and warmth, with Orpheus closing with a final sigh of acknowledgement.

Manze and Helmchen make the most of the contrast between the gruff, robotic staccato authorities and the legato sorrowing yet commandingly tranquil individual. Helmchen is mesmerizing, but Manze’s disciplined precision here veers perhaps a little too close to the comic. When the authorities withdraw, Helmchen’s sorrow intensifies, though I felt the climax, as of almost crazily clanging bells in the left hand but playing in soprano register with a sustained trill in the right hand above, might have been even more jarring before the more dazed wandering of rising and falling groupings. Yet Manze’s authorities, wondering and awestruck, are completely conquered, allowing Helmchen to point poetically the pause in his sustained closing sigh.

Vallet’s more heavyweight authorities avoid any hint of comedy, against which Sombart shows glowing, almost saintly, poise which is, however, somewhat statuesque with a remoteness that invites less sympathy than Helmchen. Sombart also becomes more intense when the authorities withdraw. Her crazy bells are scarier, yet even out into a more composed wandering than Helmchen’s. Vallet’s authorities respond with a reverence that is more polite, less shaken. Sombart’s closing sigh is less poised than Helmchen’s.

In the Vivace rondo finale, for the first time in this concerto Beethoven gives you what you’d expect: party time, emphasised by the first appearance of trumpets and drums. A more subtle opening, however, given that the pianist has just gained access to heaven, pp to start in the orchestra with a lightness and eagerness caught by Manze and then a frisky Helmchen, as if a new awakening, linking with the opening of the work. Then comes the hearty tutti celebration. Because this is a sonata rondo there’s a second theme that’s equally important. It’s first presented by piano with just one cello bass note accompaniment (tr. 6, 1:12) but soon elaborated by first violins and woodwind. It’s the lynchpin of everything, which Helmchen confirms by making as clear as I’ve ever heard its union with the rondo theme: a slow minor modulated variant of its melody is played in the left hand in mezzo register, a thing of beauty and mystery, at the same time as the second theme is introduced in the right hand in coloratura soprano register. This second theme is a secure vision of an ideal environment, unfazed by the conventional rondo distractions of a first episode (1:41) and what sounds like a second episode (3:25), yet strictly isn’t because it’s invaded by the woodwind with snatches of the rondo theme. Helmchen/Manze deliver all this with a winning combination of zip in the exuberant passages and a starry-eyed quality for all those appearances of the second theme. Manze also enjoys the orchestra’s moments of dreamy luxuriance as in the lower strings’ accompaniment using the rondo theme (5:40) and the clarinets and bassoons take-up of a particularly mellow version of the rondo theme (8:57), well matched by Helmchen’s limpid, lulling rippling.

The Sombart/Vallet opening, though inviting, is less special than Helmchen/Manze’s because it’s not quite as soft and light-hearted at the start yet, come the loud entries, the RPO is jubilant and I like the heft of its tuttis, and the merry quality of Sombart’s piano. Yet Sombart also emphasises the meditative quality of the second theme which I think is what makes the Sombart/Vallet timing for this movement at 11:11 one minute longer than Helmchen/Manze, though both recordings make their respective timings work for them. For me Sombart’s makes a closer link with the feel of thanksgiving of the opening of the first movement. Her first episode makes for a new phase of this, a combination of the earlier boisterousness and gratitude presented in contrasted dynamics as marked. Her second ‘episode’ makes a strong contrast of gusto in the piano and lightness in the orchestra’s returning to the rondo theme. When the second theme returns, Sombart vividly characterises its still, tranquil centre. Vallet, in turn, later gives eloquent attention to that very soft, dream like sequence of the rondo theme in the lower strings, but Sombart is edgier than Helmchen with the clarinets and bassoons’ mellow rondo theme presentation.

Beethoven wrote two cadenzas for the finale, of which Helmchen plays the longer (7:52). His emphasis in an exciting beginning is on crispness of clean articulation, but to the second theme he brings a creamy, reflective glow with dartingly playful semiquavers around it. Sombart, who also plays this cadenza, has a bolder, more urgent, and dramatic opening while her second theme is more directly sunny.

In sum, Helmchen/Manze’s stylish, insightful accounts belong to the top rank.

Michael Greenhalgh

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