Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 (CD review)

Martha Argerich, piano; Claudio Abbado, Mahler Chamber Orchestra. DG B0003398-02.

Listening to Martha Argerich play anything is a joy. She possesses the ability to communicate the most ethereal and the most grandiose passages with equal authority. And her fingers must have extra digits in them the way she’s able to command a keyboard.

It’s a little odd, then, that I didn’t find her 2004 recording of the Beethoven Second and Third Piano Concertos with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra quite as appealing as I expected. Not that they aren’t appealing; they are, in fact, excellent. It’s just that maybe I expected too much, or maybe I expected something a little different.

What we get is a performance of the Third Concerto that seems more sedate than I’m used to, more reserved, at least in part. Perhaps this was the effect of having Maestro Abbado leading the orchestra because the seriousness of the approach doesn’t affect Ms. Argerich’s solo passages much. It’s just that when Abbado leads the introduction and bridges, things seem to take on a heavier, more high-voltage tone that I’m not accustomed to hearing from the more-sensitive Ms. Argerich. Compare, for instance, Kovacevich/Davis or Perahia/Haitink and you notice at least a slight difference in mood, a certain lightness and brilliance missing with Argerich/Abbado. On the other hand, you could also say that because the Argerich/Abbado recording is more serious, it is therefore their intent to make it more challenging and more demanding. Nevertheless, Ms. Argerich is as persuasive as ever, and Abbado’s accompaniment is robust, to say the least. Personal preference, as always.

In the Second Concerto, though, we find a more relaxed, more stylish, yet more spontaneous approach than in the Third. The Second was actually Beethoven’s first work in the genre, and it remains among his best. Argerich/Abbado reach down into it more deeply than they do the Third, with more conviction, and with a seemingly greater rapport between soloist and conductor. It is very fine, indeed, one of the best available.

The sound, unfortunately, doesn’t always help the atmosphere of the recordings. Abbado follows his practice of insisting upon live recordings, and while the audience for each piece is very quiet, one can sense that maybe the audio engineers applied a little noise reduction and even toned down the highest treble to keep things quieter and more subdued. Although the sound is remarkably smooth and dynamic, it doesn’t have a lot of natural, lifelike bite, the frequency extremes seemingly clamped down. The orchestra appears fine by itself and Ms. Argerich is fine by herself, but together her piano is too close and big relative to the rest of the players, and they all seem a trifle compressed. Then, the audience erupts into an inevitable burst of applause at the end of each work, which I didn’t care to hear, either. Oh, well.

Regardless of my nitpicks, these are still very elegant, very refined, and exceptionally well played performances. For fans of these two particular Concertos, the Argerich/Abbado recording should make a good alternative to what they already own. Especially the Second.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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