A 3-disc set of all five of Beethoven's Piano Concertos, bringing together renowned...
Andrew McGregor 2003
Nikolaus Harnoncourt's cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is widely regarded as one of the most stimulating and characterful money can buy, full of dramatic incident, clear thinking, and astonishing playing from an orchestra which seems to be able to respond to the smallest twitch of Harnoncourt's fingers. So when it's announced that he's recorded the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the COE, there's a certain licking-of-the-lips in a lot of quarters...then an astonished raising-of-the-eyebrow when you see the soloist's name.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard? What, the Yvonne Loriod pupil who specialises in breath-taking performances of modern music: Boulez, Ligeti studies and Messiaen (viz. an awesome recent recording of Messiaen's Vingt Regards...)? Yes, indeed and it turns out that this was some kind of meeting of minds. Aimard speaks of their first encounter, recognising that they looked for the same things in their musical lives - intensity, meaning, renewal and in Harnoncourt's work in the early music world what Aimard calls 'a very high degree of commitment, inquisitiveness and absence of dogmatism' -in other words exactly what's vital to him in the field of new music. It's as though the two men are approaching Beethoven from opposite sides, the conductor from the music that led to Beethoven, and the soloist from somewhere in the future, and finding freshness in works so well-known as to have been almost institutionalised.
So what does that all mean when it comes to the recordings? Well, they were all made in live performance, and Aimard told me recently they only had one short patching session to cover audience noise. Sure enough, there are the kinds of insights that made Harnoncourt's Beethoven Symphonies such a pleasure a decade ago: the crisp articulation, the attention to detail, the impeccably moulded phrasing, the carefully applied vibrato that gives the COE an almost period instrument feel at times -two factors above all that prevent you from feeling as though you're walking around a much-loved monument for the umpteenth time: that dramatic intensity, the feeling that there's a twist or turn or moment of illumination just around every corner and an ability to find an almost Haydn-esque humour, particularly in the earlier concertos, something many performers seem programmed to turn their backs on.
And Aimard? Cut from the same cloth: intelligence, a sense of theatrical drama, and real curiosity as he alternately leads and follows Harnoncourt and the orchestra through these scores. The first three Concertos are almost revelatory; in Four and Five there seems to be less to say that we haven't heard said before, and they're also the ones where the idea of a certain monumentality actually makes sense, and might be missed...yet there are still turns of phrase and a quality of performance that won't allow you to drift into the comfort zone.
Perhaps not the library choice then, but the set to put alongside your own favourite box of the Beethoven Piano Concertos, to illuminate them from another angle, and to stop you from ever taking them for granted.
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