Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 “Emperor” (CD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Hans Werner Henze, London Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94602.

As of this writing, it was forty-odd years ago that “young” Christoph Eschenbach recorded the two Beethoven piano concertos that Brilliant Classics have re-released on the present disc. They were fine performances in their day, and they remain fine performances today. Like Master Beethoven’s works, things of beauty are joys forever.

Although I can’t recall much about Eschenbach’s recording of the Third Piano Concerto (I may never have heard it before now), I have fond memories of his Fifth. I used to own it on Deutsche Grammophon back in the old LP days but never got around to replacing it on CD. Still, it maintained a high place in my collection for many years, so it’s good to have it back where it belongs. Eschenbach combines brilliant technique and careful thought in equal measure to produce what remains one of the best “Emperor” Concerto recordings you can find.

As you probably know, Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, “Emperor,” in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would be Beethoven’s final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man’s most-popular pieces of music. However, the work’s epithet, “Emperor,” was not of Beethoven’s doing. In fact, he might not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven’s publisher who nicknamed the piece “Emperor” or possibly the fact that Beethoven premiered it in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday. Who knows.

Anyway, any rendition of the “Emperor” must provide a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, and Eschenbach does just that, the whole performance full of youthful energy, virtuosity, and daring skill. That first movement is as grand as you’d want. Yet Eschenbach offers much poetry; energetic, to be sure, but lyrical as well. Maestro Ozawa keeps the tempos brisk, yet they are never fast or rushed. So both the piano playing and the orchestral accompaniment are in accord, being enthusiastic and entirely within the Romantic tradition. The interpretation is never fierce, while always maintaining that belligerent attitude the composer was famous for.

Eschenbach and Ozawa take the slow movement even slower than usual, reinforcing the romanticism of the piece. Certainly, Eschenbach captures the melancholy of the music as well as anyone ever has. Then the team produce a rousingly heroic finale to cap off a wholly satisfying reading, which never wanders off into extrovert showmanship for its own sake.

Interestingly, DG released this recording of the Fifth Piano Concerto the same year Decca released their own version with Ashkenazy, Solti, and the Chicago Symphony, which tended to overshadow Eschenbach and company. Both recordings are in the same class, though, with Decca’s sound slightly more transparent, if a tad more hard-edged. Interestingly, too, both Eschenbach and Ashkenazy went on to successful conducting careers along with their piano playing.

The accompanying work, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (which opens the program), is not as successful under Eschenbach, Maestro Hans Henze, and the London Symphony Orchestra, although DG’s more-robust recorded sound might make it seem so. It’s not a matter of tempos so much--these are moderate--but contrasts and emphases. In any case, it’s at least a distinctive interpretation, the performers more than willing to stamp the music with the force of their own wills. I’m not sure, though, that it’s all that playful, imaginative, or charming as it is lyrically expressive. Henze seems more intent simply on making us like the music than in allowing us to like it.

DG originally recorded the Fifth Piano Concerto in 1973 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and the Third Piano Concerto in 1971 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, London. The Fifth seems a little closer than I remembered, yet it’s also a little clearer. I recall the LP sounding somewhat soft and reverberant. So the transfer engineers appear to have cleaned things up a bit. The orchestra could stretch deeper behind the soloist, too; it’s pretty much in the same plane. That aside, the sound comes across naturally enough, warm, a trifle dark, with a strong dynamic presence. The disc also displays a realistic piano sound, crisply articulated.

While in the Third Concerto we find the LSO a bit more clearly recorded than the Boston Symphony, we also find a small, bright edge. Again we get little depth to the image but a very wide stereo spread and an even more forward piano sound than in Boston.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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