It’s come at last, after months of industry hype: the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth year. As you might imagine, I could devote this column to new Beethoven recordings for the rest of 2020 and still not cover all of them. So, I’ve decided to represent the maestro through his piano concertos; even so, I only have room here to discuss half of what’s come out in the past 12 months, and more is surely on the way.
For those of you under the impression that Beethoven wrote five piano concertos, I come bearing gifts: two more concertos! Well, they’re incomplete, but there’s a lot to go on. Do they match the magnificence of the five canonical works? No. But even second-tier Beethoven is well worth a listen.
Concerto No. 0 (also called WoO 4, a German abbreviation for “work without an opus number”) exists as a manuscript of the piano part with Beethoven’s own annotations on how he would orchestrate it. One recent attempt to reconstruct it is by Japanese pianist Mari Kodama and conductor Kent Nagano, performing with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester on the Berlin Classics/Edel label. The CD set includes Concertos 0-5 plus the Eroica Variations and the Triple Concerto, for which Kodama is joined by violinist Kolja Blacher and cellist Johannes Moser.
As you can hear from Kodama’s recording of the opening Allegro Moderato, the Concerto No. 0 in E-flat major is a derivative work, although skillfully crafted. But when you consider that Beethoven was 14 years old and an ardent fan of Haydn and Mozart when he wrote it, this is astonishingly well done!
Concerto No. 3 in C minor is a more mature work and a thing of intense beauty. Kodama shows that she has a grasp of its emotional complexity. Listen to this breathless rendering of the second movement, marked Largo:
Despite the almost-existence of Concerto No. 0, not every pianist is willing to include it in the set. Note the title of Jan Lisiecki’s new 3-disc collection on Deutsche Grammophon: Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos. Yet it only includes the standard No. 1-5, with Tomo Keller conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The performance was recorded live at Konzerthaus Berlin in 2018 and released the following year.
Lisiecki’s playing can be described with one word: powerful. While it can be soul-stirring, occasionally the power drowns out the grace so needed for the Classical and early Romantic periods. That might be an aspect of youth; at only 24, Lisiecki has the potential to grow in dramatic sophistication. The Allegro con brio first movement of Concerto No. 3 lives up to its name (brio means vigor). There’s no question that Lisiecki is a virtuoso, and the orchestra sounds rich yet precise.
In the largo from the Third Concerto, Lisiecki’s admirable rhythmic patience is not always compensation for the weight of his playing. There are some beautiful passages, though, especially when Lisiecki is shaping Beethoven’s winding 16th-note melodies over the smooth sea of orchestral writing.
I’m not sure Beethoven would love this next example. Like all creative artists, composers often start works and then, for any of a thousand reasons, stop working on them and move on to something else. That’s what happened with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 6 in D Major; calling it “incomplete” is an understatement. In around 1815, Beethoven wrote 70 pages’ worth of sketches for the first movement and orchestrated about half of its exposition. Then he put it in a drawer, where it remained for the rest of his life. But somebody found it. Sorry, Ludwig.
Musicologists Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant completed an orchestration of the movement in 1987, and it has at last been recorded, on Oehms Classics, by Sophie Mayuko-Vetter. Peter Ruzicka conducts the Hamburg Symphony. A sign that this is a later work is the lack of orchestral theme or ritornello at the start. And the piano comes in with a swirl of filigree rather than a true melody. Even as the orchestra settles into a theme, it seems to wander without Beethoven’s clear sense of purpose. To their credit, both Mayuko-Vetter and Ruzicka work hard to give this movement a shape and goal, and the pianist’s light touch is a delight.
Mayuko-Vetter’s playing of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major is clearly phrased and confident. Ruzicka and the orchestra support her with stately finesse. Here’s the middle-movement Adagio, performed with longing and a bit too much sustain pedal for my taste.
Also included on this CD is the Concerto No. 0, which Mayuko-Vetter performs on a fortepiano made in 1806 by British builder John Broadwood. While that period-instrument choice gives the solo part an authentic timbre, the overall recording is not especially period-appropriate. Hamburg’s orchestral sound lacks the brightness and elegance of that Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester recording mentioned above. Instead, Ruzicka goes for a heavier tone and thicker phrasing, more like what you’d expect for late Beethoven, not the Mozartian studies of a nerdy teen.
Last and far from least, there’s a spectacular new recording on Berlin Philharmonic Media by the great Mitsuko Uchida of Concertos 1-5 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. You can listen to the whole album on Spotify here:
Without even mentioning Uchida, this recording is a gem. That velvety Berlin Phil sound! The opening second-movement statement of Concerto No. 5 (Emperor) is like gazing calmly into Beethoven’s soul. Then in comes Uchida, dropping a gentle rainfall of notes over the orchestra’s lush forest floor. Exquisite. And full credit to Beethoven, of course, whose greatness as a melodist we frankly take for granted after all this time.
To end on a fiery note, here’s Uchida playing the Rondo: Vivace-Presto conclusion of Concerto No. 4. The orchestral writing is almost as virtuosic as that for the pianist, but every musician plays with a seeming ease that allows Rattle to maintain a dancing forward motion.
After listening to all these recordings and more besides, one thing is clear: Ol’ Ludwig is on track for another 250 years of enthusiastic attention. What composer could wish for a greater legacy? Happy birthday, Beethoven!