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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795, rev. 1800) [36:56]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, ‘Emperor’ (1809) [37:50]
Orchestra of Friends/Eugene Albulescu (piano)
rec 2020, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

It’s quite a tall order to be pianist and conductor in Beethoven’s piano concertos, so all credit to Eugene Albulescu, even though he’s experienced in both roles. Piano Concerto No. 1 is a fun piece, and the more I hear it, the more I realize Beethoven’s sleight-of-hand is managing this. Take the introduction’s opening theme, heard soft, then loud. Why? I suggest a troop arriving, or a carnival procession. Hearing this jolly C major music, as if from a distance, gets you anticipating with a pleasure that’s confirmed by the experience full on. Albulescu as conductor would have produced this more effectively with a softer opening and louder repeat. But I like his first violins’ swagger in their descents in semiquavers. The second theme, introduced by the first violins (tr. 1, 1:23) has a pleasantly retiring manner, but the third theme (2:29), a march like the first, needs more spring, without which it sounds a shade tentative from the Orchestra of Friends (hereafter OOF). The fourth theme (3:03) is Albulescu’s entrance as pianist. It’s a sort of variation of the second theme. He brings a nice, relaxed opening, then a real crunch to the double appoggiatura in the third phrase and its repeat shortly after. A bit too venomous? I think Beethoven would have enjoyed the venom and I’ll tell you why. At the later set of three appoggiaturas (3:35) Albulescu is too polite, because these mock, with an octave leap to a note then repeated twice, the opening march theme. These and the ones following soon after need more poised pointing before the semiquaver runs Albulescu delivers with splendid vigour. And I appreciate, when he has an immediately repeated phrase, he ornaments the melody the second time (4:00 to 4:03). Sadly, the semiquaver runs mask more mocking moments: you can hear the oboes, only p, recall the first theme like clucking hens (4:07), but not really the bassoons and then oboes too shortly after. Another bit of Beethoven sleight-of-hand is that only when the second theme returns is it heard in full and the piano’s completion of it (from 4:50) should therefore be more jubilant. A little anoraky detail for you: the top note of this theme, now in G major, is F sharp (4:52), as played by Albulescu and usually, which is confirmed by the use of the note B in the recapitulation in C major. But the note Beethoven wrote was F, because that was the highest note on most fortepianos of the time. I discovered this using Jayson Gillham’s recording in comparison to Martin Helmchen’s (review). The note F makes an unexpectedly bluesy effect, though to use it on a modern piano is anachronistic. When the third theme returns, the tests for the pianist are firstly the contrary motion of rising right-hand quavers in pairs against descending left-hand semiquavers in fours (5:30), and secondly the slightly rising right-hand crotchets with spasmodic sforzandos against descending left-hand quavers in triplets (5:36). Albulescu achieves all this in great, bubbly manner.

How goes the development (7:31)? There ought to be a sense of change of perspective and there is, with Albulescu bringing wariness to the early largely piano solo material and rapid exploration of new, cloudier territory and then comments from concerned woodwind colleagues. Albulescu’s declamatory ff cascade is like a battle cry, wagering all and plunging, perhaps, into an abyss. But all’s well: it’s just the ff recapitulation of the march theme and again, for me, the OOF would benefit from more spring. The second theme recap is appropriately benign. Here’s where you can argue B, its top note in the piano (10:57), would be more welcome if its equivalent hadn’t been reached before. I think the third theme recap is too laid back from OOF, a rather indolent march, but Albulescu does give it more spring on the piano.

Beethoven completed two cadenzas for this movement. Albulescu, like most pianists today, plays the longer one. It begins with a triumphant entry of the first theme (13:06), delivered by Albulescu with pace and fluency before wandering in the manner of a fantasia and reaching an alien, minor key version in the right hand (14:03), with sporadic dissonance. Yet this is relieved through playful minutiae and falling into the second theme in a pretty intimate, musing guise in a beauteously cool, purified version (14:46). In another transformation the movement’s earlier contrast between right-hand quavers and left-hand descending triplets becomes more prominent and sinister, ending with thunderbolts of the first theme in deep chords in the left-hand. The third theme enters (16:39), rather remote for all its playfulness, and gets lost airborne. OOF’s brief coda now does have a fair spring.

There are more player-conductor recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos than there used to be, but they are still in the minority. I compare the latest, that by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet recorded in 2019 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (Chandos CHSA 5273 SACD). The timing almost says it all: Bavouzet and the SCO present this Allegro con brio opening movement in 16:33 against Albulescu and OOF’s 18:23. And it doesn’t sound rushed but sparkles all the way. Bavouzet and the SCO are able to present the loud tuttis with a vigour which is never heavy. The arrival from the opening is a dance, then there’s a big contrast of dynamic for their full-on appearance and this is a carnival procession, but a very elegant one. The hush before the second theme, marked p, is notable, as if it’s a lady who appears, modest but a good mover. There’s a spring to the third theme. The piano’s entry with the fourth theme, quiet and sounding almost improvised, as if stealing in on the proceedings, makes you think of the quiet second theme entry. Then the surprise is Bavouzet’s racily skittish treatment of the appoggiaturas and triplets in demisemiquavers and the later mocking is very plain as, more subtly, is that of the clear oboes and later bassoons. Bavouzet makes that F sharp apex to the completion of the second theme very poised and pointed and does the contrary motion in style.

The slow movement I hear as a love story. The piano’s opening theme, from Albulescu thoughtful, appreciative, concentrated, yet quite melting too, is that of a lover. The orchestral, parental response also from Albulescu in his dual piano-conductor role, lilting and gentle, but its cadences (from tr. 2, 0:55) call the lover to order, saying ‘pull yourself together’. These latter I feel Albulescu overmuch understates. The other lover, a cantabile solo clarinet, makes a more expansive, gorgeously played soft rejoinder (1:13) and the piano replies with a free variation of the love theme, Albulescu with eloquent, open-hearted declaration (1:31). Now the second parental orchestral rebuff is stronger, ff and with sforzandos, and again I feel Albulescu as conductor underplays it. Or you might prefer to hear this as uneasiness about rejecting, though that’s not how Beethoven wrote it. What really matters, however, is the lovers’ response: the piano continuing with the free variation (2:25) and the clarinet exchanging phrases in support, and their playing becomes joyous. The third orchestral reprimand (3:22), now reduced to f, has a vacuous formality that has been overtaken by events, so the opening love theme can be recapitulated by the piano with effusive ornamentation. Now the orchestral reprimand starts soft (5:02), grows to f, but in the spirit of polite acquiescence. The piano lover caps this, as with the second theme of the first movement, by extending and completing the first, love theme in this one (5:51) and adds a happy statement of the earlier reprimand theme (6:15) to confirm its transformation. The clarinet is so convincing in affirming faithfulness (6:36) that the orchestra now strongly supports (7:17), leaving the two lovers the joy of exchanging vows (8:04). 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. Albulescu and his first clarinet, who really does turn out to be his best friend, give us a glowing courtship.

Timing this Largo movement at 9:35, Bavouzet is only 6 seconds faster than Albulescu, but in paying tighter attention to the orchestral reprimands he does bring more character to the movement. His opening solo is of a dreamy languor, to which the prominently f tutti reprimand clarifies correctness. Then you notice the wind mock this by p repetition of the key phrase, which the strings then repeat in a short version f to slap their wrists, then the wind repeats this p, oblivious, which provokes the clarinet’s first solo response. And it’s the highest wind instrument, Beethoven having tweaked the orchestration in this movement only by leaving out the flute and two oboe parts. Soon Bavouzet’s interplay with his first clarinet lover is more flirtatious than Albulescu’s. Carefully noting the p marking, Bavouzet is more relaxed about completing the love theme, but the clarinet’s response, though also p, being in the highest tessitura around, is also very positive. The effect is one of a secret, coded proposal by the piano and acceptance by the clarinet. You then hear clearly how the transformation of the movement takes place in the community: after exchanges between strings and wind, they finally come together warmly in acceptance. The lovers then echo each other, as previously, playfully rather than Albulescu’s more moonily, though Bavouzet’s lovers closing exchanges then become more affectionate. Another difference is that Bavouzet emphasises more the increasing ornamentation of the piano’s courtship which places it in a court environment. His lovers are of court breeding where Albulescu’s focus more on the universality of love.

From Albulescu’s opening piano solo with the rondo theme it’s clear this is going to be a whiz-bang finale and the OOF’s response, with sforzandos in addition, valiantly manages to be in the same effervescent spirit. The highlight of the first episode, which the orchestra begins, is the piano’s repeat of its second section (tr. 3, 1:09) in which Albulescu revels in the glowing low notes while also matching the high notes. In the second episode (2:28) you can just about appreciate the semiquaver rests in the samba rhythm (yes, it is) and soon enjoy the flute tracery around it (2:35), but the first bassoon’s response to the flute is less easy to spot. This is all very exhilarating, but tiring too, for the players and listener. Albulescu uses Beethoven’s written-in cadenza, for which he takes 19 seconds, to give a little breathing space, though this slightly blunts Beethoven’s joke of having a very grand build-up to a very short cadenza. Yet, sufficiently refreshed, the breakneck pace continues even to the final, soft version of just the beginning of the rondo theme which takes a little away from its bell peal charm. You can’t help but admire Albulescu and the OOF’s stamina as you then go and have a lie-down.

Bavouzet, as it happens, timing the finale at 8:30, is only 9 seconds slower, but my impression of his account was more of sparkle as he whizzes along, because his articulation is lighter. The tuttis of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra have more verve and variety than those of the OOF, because the weight of the sforzandos noticeably varies according to the varied dynamic marking of the tutti. In the repeat of the first episode’s second section Bavouzet’s very low notes are drier than Albulescu’s which is the most notable difference between Bavouzet’s Yamaha, UK model CFX and Albulescu’s Steinway, New York D. Bavouzet’s pointing of the second episode samba shows a little more poise than Albulescu’s and his first bassoon’s response to the flute tracery is clear. The SCO’s build-up to the cadenza is grander, especially the ff timpani trill at the end, while Bavouzet’s 13 second cadenza makes more of Beethoven’s defusing of expectation. Bavouzet secures lovely crystalline bell peal effects as he bows out.

Piano Concerto No. 5 is a celebration of cadenzas from the start. From Albulescu firm, but bright, orchestral chords and then athletic, short cadenzas come three times to serve as the first movement and work’s introduction, a foretaste of orchestral might and pianist virtuosity while, leaving nothing to chance, in this concerto Beethoven wrote all the cadenzas within the score. The OOF introduces the first theme (tr. 4, 1:10), delivered in stalwart fashion yet with relish and fiery sforzandos at its end, just before the second theme comes as a pp contrast (2:04), which for me could have been more marked owing to its different character, ambivalent, nervously questioning, where the first theme is assured, even blustering. The change is achieved by a continuous contest between the violins’ staccato melody on the beat and the first clarinet, bassoon and lower strings’ syncopated offbeat accents. But it’s soon smoothed over by another change, as two horns in duet present the melody dolce in crotchets over strings’ running quavers (2:19), as if a confident orator has taken over. This movement is full of such transformations and also transitional passages, like the wonderfully spooky one between pp first violins and cellos and double basses (2:35) which Albulescu catches well, leading to the return of the first theme. This tutti has a grand and fervent climax, a really spirited sound from the OOF, yet even in the midst of it there’s woodwind musing, four stepwise descending quavers presented four times in rising sequences (3:15) which show the first theme capable of generating additional material to creamy, poetic effect. I think Albulescu might have given this more character, given its dolce marking. A six-note motif enters quietly on the first violins (3:53), followed by a ten-note elaboration shortly before the piano’s first thematic entry. This motif also could beneficially be pointed up more as it becomes more significant through repetition, you could say an emblem of the heroic quality of the entire movement. It returns next at 8:52, just before the development.

Another dolce marking occurs when the piano enters solo with the first theme, also transformed poetically but soon turning to cadenza style material. Next the bassoon introduces a third theme (5:08), seized on by oboe and flute: its function is to create a transitional passage between the piano’s solos of the first and second theme. The novel feature of the latter is the piano’s transformed version of the original horns’ repeat (5:51), this time in high tessitura and staccato against a backcloth of sustained notes by one clarinet, one bassoon and one cello, a white purification of the technicolour horns. This is immediately followed by a tutti which is a transformation of the second theme into a march (6:07). For me the OOF is a bit too square here: I think it should be more dapper with its parade of quavers and rests between them. Albulescu does, however, bring rigour and excitement to the passage of contrary motion (6:40), whose right hand opens with a shorter start to the first theme which then develops more muscle, usually the right hand rising while the left is falling, more dramatic than in Concerto No. 1. The development begins with soft entries of the first theme on solo clarinet (9:34), flute and oboe in turn, which here sound anxiously exploratory despite their dolce marking, but do signal a change of perspective. The climax of the development (10:25) is thrilling as the orchestra, f and piano a thunderous ff, exchange a martial dotted rhythm. Yet also telling and well conveyed here is the bringing about of calm by the orchestra’s fp descents which soften the piano’s response to reintroduce espressivo the six-note motif (11:21), taken up in turn by clarinet and bassoon and later oboe. The management of the recapitulation is also distinctive: we get the whole introduction again, but a shortened version of the first theme, then the third, then the second with the piano’s revised continuation, not the horns. The conventional point for the piano cadenza is grandly prepared by the orchestra’s martial dotted rhythm; but then the piano races in with little ceremony and we get, as in the finale but not first movement of Concerto No. 1, a short cadenza. From Albulescu here it lasts 47 seconds. He toys with the opening motif of the first theme in low register, dispelled by a maelstrom of high register semiquavers, paving the way for such to accompany a carillon version of the second theme and now the legato version of that theme on horns returns nearly 16 minutes after its first appearance. The tutti orchestra returns with the opening of the first theme: you know this is the coda by the determined progression of the piano’s echoing of it (18:35). The six-note motif and ten-note elaboration feature in the flute, clarinet and bassoon (19:09), but the piano repeats just seven notes of the elaboration to lead into and emphasise the martial dotted rhythm and secure its closing dominance.

Bavouzet, timing this first movement at 18:44 to Albulescu’s 20:10, for me conveys a truer Allegro, emphasising litheness of orchestral playing and sparkle of piano cadenzas. With Albulescu you feel more Herculean effort. Bavouzet’s sforzandos are lightly sprung, the second theme stylishly balletic, the horns’ repeat creamy and lilting, the woodwind musing descending quavers stand out in their joyous skipping. Bavouzet’s piano opening first theme entry is graceful, almost sneaking in, leaving the striking point of emphasis where marked f and staccato at the very end of his first solo. The important first violins’ six-note motif is quietly yet firmly noted. The third theme has a distinctively merry character and dynamic contrasts are generally refined, but especially in the magical quality brought to the pp leggiermente right-hand over the second theme and of much soft playing. The change of the second theme into a march is crisp and dapper. The tuttis are athletic. The clarinet opening the development is clearer and the woodwind solos here are less pensive than Albulescu’s: exploratory but keen, purposeful and with powerful climax. Bavouzet’s cadenza is more shimmering, taking just 39 seconds, yet featuring again lovely, crystalline leggiermente treatment of the second theme accompaniment.

After the relative complexity of the first movement, the fairly slow one, Adagio un poco moto, is refreshingly straightforward. Just one, chorale-like theme and Albulescu’s orchestral opening, the violins muted, is shadowy and mysterious, yet also with a reverence that acknowledges gratitude for repose, as tension in the violas’ F natural (tr. 5, 1:09, 1:15) underlies the first violins’ caring resolution of it, all nicely detailed by Albulescu. As pianist he then has a pp espressivo opening solo which is an expansive, fantasia like, meditation on the theme and it’s pleasingly transparent and limpid until it changes to f and accented semiquaver runs which for me are rather too solidly contrasted. However, the parade of trills which follows provides relief. Now come two variations on the chorale. In the first (4:00) the theme is at last presented directly by the piano and Albulescu makes this for the listener a shock of recognition, the variation here being florid embellishments on, rather than - as before - beyond, the theme. In the second variation (5:10) the woodwind has the theme and the piano provides a tranquil accompaniment with its own descant in semiquavers. For me Albulescu is a little over firm in this, given its dolce marking. But he finds a pp gentle sleepiness for the lead-in towards the tempo change for the Allegro ma non troppo rondo finale.

Bavouzet, timing this second movement at 7:30 to Albulescu’s 6:59, is a touch less un poco moto. His orchestral opening is a little dreamier, more feather-bedded, but the violas’ tension and violins’ resolution is equally clear. Bavouzet’s opening solo is gentle and pearly, a poised presentation which seems to have all the time in the world yet also progresses. Come the f passage and semiquaver runs you feel an expansion of perspective and import, but still within the overall meditative framework and transitioning smoothly to a delicate parade of trills. Bavouzet is content to make Variation 1 luxurious and lilting and you are made very much aware of the flowering of the woodwind and finally strings with the theme, a growth which in turn makes for a smooth transition to Variation 2. Bavouzet’s piano accompaniment is more dolce than Albulescu’s, matching the later intensity and falling away of the woodwind, the dynamic contrasts more marked than with Albulescu. Bavouzet’s lead-in towards the tempo change is that of a more concentrated awakening.

Albulescu and the OOF enjoy the rondo finale as an uproarious party. The rondo theme, first presented by the pianist Albulescu full of bounce, contrasts a jerky rising melody in the first half with a falling one in the second, lots of quaver rests, hence the jerkiness, semiquavers in pairs, and giggling trills at the end of the first two phrases. It’s a state of uninhibited wildness that you feel could last for ever. The OOF repeat is all enthusiasm, full of glee and thrust, especially in the sforzandos which Beethoven judiciously measures out: there are only seven. Pianist Albulescu starts the first episode (tr. 6, 0:59) as if on a roller coaster and not bothered if he falls off; but this is just an introductory cadenza and the episode has a theme (1:07) marked dolce. This too rises in leaps, with appoggiaturas (1:13) rather than rests, so the jerkiness can now be more refined, as Albulescu presents it, or comic. This theme too has a falling second part, first provided by solo bassoon, then with clarinets, then tutti, then finally the pianist gets it all to himself with a tall order to continue and expand the leaping and yet remain dolce, easier though when a flood of high tessitura semiquavers follows as a respite before the crescendo to ff, staccato bass quavers and more sforzandos. Albulescu is unfazed by all this and now fizzingly delivers the rondo theme for the second time (2:12). When you think it’s coming again (3:12), it’s really only the first phrase and a mini cadenza development, ‘rondo 2a’. And yet again (3:45), a very soft false reprise which soon elaborates in high tessitura and airborne fantasy, ‘rondo 2b’. Once more (4:25), dreamy, idyllic and buoyant in turn, ‘rondo 2c’. The only bit of the rondo tutti the orchestra gets is its closing cadence. Albulescu the pianist now delivers the second episode (4:57), more powerful and darker hued, yet ending in long trills, under which the orchestra plays, softly and much spaced out, the opening of the rondo theme, recalling how the piano introduced it in the transition to this movement. Cue the piano to bring in the full theme, full throttle, Albulescu matey and companionable. The OOF is allowed only its second full rondo theme tutti and are sprightly but I feel they might have brought a bit more swing to it. Pianist Albulescu repeats the first episode (6:57), then the rondo theme for the third time (8:07) and the OOF get their third go (8:29), exciting owing to the tremolando strings. Pianist Albulescu ushers in the coda (9:35) with obbligato timpani softly defining the movement’s key dotted rhythm, a final slow down and doze to preface a closing roller coaster acceleration and irrepressibly thrusting orchestral close.

Bavouzet, timing the finale at 9:31 to Albulescu’s 10:25, shaves a bit more off Beethoven’s Allegro ma non troppo. This makes the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s rondo theme presentations more scintillating while there’s from both pianist and orchestra a more marked contrast of dynamics, weight, light and shade. Bavouzet’s appoggiaturas in the first episode theme are more mellifluous, his pp glistening in rondos 2b and 2c, his second episode both more manic and progressive. So, Albulescu and Bavouzet offer a different styled Beethoven. Albulescu, with his Steinway, brings more weight and is more traditional in approach. Bavouzet, with his Yamaha, goes for a lighter touch, but also a wider range of contrast and mood which results from more pointed dynamic contrasts. Albulescu and his friends achieve a great deal, but Bavouzet and his colleagues have the edge.
Michael Greenhalgh

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