Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 28.  Helene Grimaud, piano; Vladimir Jurowski, Dresden Staatskapelle. DG B0009840-02.

The booklet note describes pianist Helene Grimaud as "among the most sagacious of today's keyboard artists, a philosopher at the concert grand." It goes on to say that her interpretation of the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto is "a journey of the soul through the vales of worldly despair and over the peaks of ideologies. A musical journey to a world viewed from a melancholic interior--and a journey in time from Beethoven's world to ours." She herself says of the Concerto that it is a work of "philosophy cast in music, a philosophy that sets out to neutralize human contradictions."

Phew! That's a lot for any piece of music to mean and a lot for any musician to convey. Does Ms. Grimaud live up to the rather overwrought prose? Well, she certainly plays with dazzling virtuosity. She must have ten fingers on each hand. And there is no denying that her performance of the Concerto is thrilling in the extreme.

But I also admit to finding the interpretation a bit over-driven in parts, leaving one almost breathless at the end. Interesting, too, that a performer described as a "philosopher" would produce something that appears more grandiose than other pianists' readings. And it's not that her realization is any faster than other performances. It just seems that she sometimes pushes it harder than most others do, despite some lovely poetic moments, especially in the slow movement. Frankly, though, I much preferred her rendition of the accompanying Piano Sonata No. 28, where her natural lyricism holds sway.

Nor am I sure that DG did her any favors with the sound. The piano seems too clangy and thumpy, and the Dresden Staatskapelle appears too thin and bass shy alongside her. To be certain it wasn't just my ears that were faulty on the night I listened, I put on Arrau (Philips), Ashkenazy (London), Kovacevich (Philips), Perahia (Sony), and Kempff (DG) for comparison, and those recordings all sounded warmer, fuller, better balanced, and more realistic to my ears. Anyway, while Ms. Grimaud produces both an exhilarating, grandiloquent, yet often lyrical rendition of the "Emperor" Concerto, for my money it is maybe not a performance for the ages.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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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