Beethoven: Piano Concertos 2 & 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

John O'Conor, piano; Andreas Delfs, London Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80675.

The booklet insert notes that Irish pianist John O'Conor "...has taken on the mantle of his revered professor Wilhelm Kempff and gives the annual Beethoven Interpretation Course in Kempff's own villa in Positano, Italy, where Kempff gave the course from 1957."

Naturally, after listening to O'Conor's performance of the "Emperor" Concerto, I turned immediately to Kempff's classic recording on DG Originals, and I found the two men's approach to the music quite similar. They both grant the work its grand scale, but, more important, they provide it with the poetry it needs in the second movement Adagio and in bits and pieces of the first and third movements to make this work the forerunner of all other big Romantic piano concertos of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After all, without the "Emperor" of 1809, could we really have expected the concertos of Schumann or Grieg or Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov and so on?

So, O'Conor's reading is expressive yet eloquent, sweeping yet lyrical. You couldn't ask for much more than that. Moreover, the coupling of the Second Concerto is equally well played, and even if I don't personally care much for its first two movements, O'Conor brings out all the delightful playfulness of the concluding Rondo.

Supporting O'Conor's fine performances, maestro Delfs, and the LSO is Telarc's audio quality. I must admit that over the years the company hasn't always produced discs that sounded as good to my ears as I'd like, but this one is excellent. The tonal balance is quite neutral, the transparency is everything it should be, the dynamics are first-class, and the orchestral depth and spread are exemplary. My only quibble is that I would have preferred the piano to be more in the middle of things than it is here, which is slightly to the left of center. Nevertheless, the piano is well integrated into the orchestral picture, making the recording an all-around good contender in this field.

In other words, O'Conor's rendering can compete against the best--Kempff, Kovacevich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, you name them.


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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