Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 5 (CD review)

Francois-Frederic Guy, piano; Philippe Jordan, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  Naive V 5084.

Judging by their pictures on the back cover and within the booklet insert, both pianist Francois-Frederic Guy and conductor Philippe Jordan appear to be relatively young men. It is fitting, therefore, that their performances should be filled with youthful enthusiasm and unbridled zest. Not that the performers aren't mature and understanding as well, but they display a spark often missing in recordings of Beethoven's concertos.

In a booklet note Guy mentions pianists like Schnabel, Fischer, Kempff, and Brendel as having created the cornerstones of modern Beethoven piano concerto recordings, but, in fact, Guy's performance most resembles those of the younger Kovocevith or Ashkenazy, which is not a bad thing at all. Guy also mentions that he wanted to pair up the First and Fifth Piano Concertos to show how far Beethoven had gone from his first to his last entry in the field. Then on the next page of the booklet in an essay by Beate Angelika Kraus, the author tells us that the First Concerto was not really Beethoven's first in this field at all but his third, the composer having written as a teenager an earlier piano concerto that never got an opus number and having never actually finished No. 1 until after he had completed No. 2. Well, I don't think it makes much difference. Guy's point is still well taken, and there are striking differences in Nos. 1 and 5, which Guy effectively points up in his interpretations.

The First is, of course, full of the same youthful enthusiasm I mentioned the two performers possessing, so it naturally comes off with an appropriate spark. Concerto No 5, the "Emperor," is done up in the grand manner, yet it is not without a movingly lyrical slow section nor without strong poetic feeling in the lighter moments of movements one and three. It may not displace Kovacevich or Kempff as top contenders in this repertoire, but it is a contender.

However, when you factor in the well-focused Naive sound, the competition for best "Emperor" recording gets even closer. There is an excellent dynamic range and impact to the sound, the piano is beautifully balanced, and the detailing is superb. I found the stereo spread a bit less expansive than I liked, but that may have only been in comparison to most of the other recordings I've mentioned. The bass end is also a mite lean, which helps bring out the recording's transparency but doesn't provide quite as much weight as I'd prefer. Still, all things considered, this 2007 Naive recording is probably one of the best all-around releases on the market right now. So, highly recommended.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa