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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op 15
Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major, Op 19
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58
Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat major, Op 73 “Emperor”
Piano Concerto No 6 in D major, H 15 (1814/15)
Piano Concerto No 7 in D major, Op 61a (after Violin Concerto)
Piano Concerto No 0 in E-flat major, WoO 4
Rondo in B-flat major, WoO 6
Michael Korstick (piano)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Trinks
rec. 2020/21, ORF Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
CPO 555447-2 [4 CDs: 256]

There is no getting round the fact that Michael Korstick is nowhere near as well known as he ought to be. I hope this tremendous new set will go some way toward putting him up where he belongs – that is amongst the very finest pianists of our day. The German pianist already has an extensive discography but, for one reason or another, has remained somewhat below the radar. As these Beethoven performances amply demonstrate, it is not because his music making lacks in dynamism or charisma. These are amongst the most physically exhilarating Beethoven accounts I have heard in quite a while.

I want to see this new set primarily in the context of three excellent recentish rivals – Zimerman with the LSO and Rattle, Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin, and Stewart Goodyear with BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. The reader will be relieved to hear that I am not going to work my way through each concerto movement by movement. All of these sets have an enormous amount to recommend them even if, sadly, I will personally be discounting the Zimerman since, for all his wonderful, delicate insights into the music, he is too often dragged down by rather lumpen accompaniment from Rattle which seems to veer alarmingly between fussy point making and autopilot. This demonstrates an obvious point that most of the best recordings of these concertos feature a genuinely dynamic partnership between conductor and pianist. I was highly impressed by Trinks’ vivid and imaginative responses to Korstick’s playing and his orchestra puts the LSO in the shade in almost every department.

CPO’s sound places the soloist pretty far forward which in some ways suits Korstick’s forceful personality in this music but I did feel that occasionally his moments of tenderness and poetry suffered from this full blooded, front and centre sound. This is a minor quibble as the sound is colourful and rich.

If Helmchen is playful and extravagant and Goodyear gloriously patrician, Korstick feels a bit more like a welcome throwback to older ways of playing Beethoven. There is an infectious energy and a boldness of attack that make other accounts seem a little tentative. Others might like a more serene approach to No 4 for example but I found Korstick and Trinks’ great washes of adrenaline very exciting.

I would hate to give the impression that these accounts lack subtlety. Sample the urbane wit and poise as well as yearning romance of Korstick in the slow movement of No 1 to correct this impression. Indeed, I found the first three concertos emerge from these recordings with reputations enhanced. Listen to Korstick and Trinks in the supposedly more Mozartian No 2 and you are in no doubt that you are listening to Beethoven. There is much robust fun to be had in the finale of No 1 with some delectably fruity horns joining in the larks. The third concerto, probably my favourite of these performances, takes a heavyweight and passionate view where a more classical approach has become more the norm these days. Korstick’s blazing manner in the first movement makes for compulsive listening and the tension at its end where the hushed close to the cadenza leads to a furious conclusion is magically intense.

I regard Helmchen’s Emperor with the ever innovative Manze as one of the great recordings with an unbeatable combination of panache, weight and a healthy helping of zany humour. Korstick’s is more traditional but it would be a hard critic who wouldn’t warm to the sheer energy with which he attacks the torrents of notes. I preferred Trinks’ more direct approach to either Manze or Rattle even if he sometimes lacks the former’s wit. No one can match the convulsive, irresistible drive of Furtwängler with Edwin Fischer in the opening movement but, as Stewart Goodyear shows, a more stately take on this movement can reap rich dividends. To be perfectly honest if budget will stretch I would recommend buying Korstick, Helmchen and Goodyear!

I haven’t yet mentioned Korstick’s attention to detail. Alongside the force of his interpretations, every phrase seems carefully thought out. This quality is best heard in the finale of the Emperor where each permutation of the main theme is carefully and delightfully characterised.

This new set from Korstick comes with an intriguing title that claims to offer us seven Beethoven piano concertos. One of the extras will be familiar to many readers as the rather unloved arrangement the composer made of his Violin Concerto. I have found myself warming to this piece in recent years, mostly thanks to a tremendously imaginative period instrument recording by Gottlieb Wallisch also on CPO. Incidentally, Wallisch’s whole cycle is a real joy and well worth checking out. The programme notes for this Korstick set – highly informative though with the occasional queasy moment in terms of English translation- note that the Violin Concerto itself went through two previous versions before arriving at its final form with the revisions intended to make it more idiomatic on the violin. The writer, Charles K. Tomicik, then goes on to make the intriguing point that in arranging it for piano Beethoven went back to his first version suggesting that the composer was always writing a kind of piano concerto. An argument could be made that rather than an inferior arrangement what we are hearing is the concerto in its most authentic form. I am not sure I would go that far but in sympathetic hands – and Korstick and Trinks are superbly sensitive here – it seems so much more than mere hack work. In its piano version, the concerto is less ethereal than on the violin and Korstick’s robustness might surprise some listeners. I enjoyed it immensely.

I expect that, like me, most listeners will be curious to hear the working up of a torso of a first movement in D major that here goes under the title of Piano Concerto No 6. I also expect that most listeners will conclude, as I did, that it is clearly audible why Beethoven abandoned it for all the passionate advocacy of the performers here. It belongs to those awkward years between Beethoven’s middle and late periods and it vividly dramatises, in my imagination at least, the composer reaching the limit of the heroic style that had served him so well up to that point.

The charming little Piano Concerto No 0 from 1784, when the composer was just 14, seems a first cousin of the second concerto, a familial resemblance even more pronounced in the delightful Rondo in B-flat. Both are dispatched with love and flair.

I hope readers aren’t put off by relatively unfamiliar names on the cover of this recording. This is Beethoven out of the top drawer and deserves the kind of accolades earned by Goodyear and Helmchen. Sometimes comparative listening for reviews can be bit of a chore but with so many superb yet distinct sets of these concertos, it has in this instance been a real joy – joy capped by the pleasures to be had thanks to exemplary musicianship of Korstick, Trinks and the Viennese players.

David McDade

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