Beethoven: Pianos Concertos 3 & 4 (CD review)

Maria Joao Pires, piano; Daniel Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Onyx 4125.

In the booklet notes to her album of Beethoven piano concertos, the celebrated Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires poses an interesting question about the function of the artist. She says "The role of interpreter is a delicate one: he, or she, is faced with the score as the sole point of contact with the composer. It is the interpreter's job to bring a work to life, across distances in time and space, by making a connection between a personality--often an exceptional one--and ordinary mortals. To achieve this he has to put mind and body at the service of a considerable task: the transmission of art. In music, the word 'interpretation' is prone to a number of misconceptions, frequently with unfortunate consequences. Thus, we often see two positions set against each other: either the performer must 'project himself' in order to give life to the score (to 'show personality,' at the risk of betraying the spirit of the work; or, on the contrary, he must show the score the utmost respect, so trying to suppress his own personality to give a reading of the work which may well be perfect--but lifeless."

"Logically speaking," she continues, "one might think that the correct approach would be halfway between these extremes, but such logic would be crude compared to the subtlety of the question. Indeed, these two approaches both fall prey to the same fallacy, through the disproportionate importance they attach to personality. Whether through excess or shortage of personality, this concept gets in the way of music's essential power to bring out a primal simplicity, so often forgotten, which is present deep inside each one of us, waiting to respond when summoned."

I love the question: How much of an artist's own personality should he or she impose upon the music so that it doesn't sound like just another rote, mechanical, routine performance. Although Ms. Pires's answer to her own question is somewhat vague, I think we all get the idea. The interpreter must show technical skill, virtuosity if you will, in shaping the music to his or her own taste and yet always with an educated guess at the composer's intent, always with the music foremost. Otherwise, you get performers who either beg to call attention to themselves through their eccentricities -- "Aren't I wonderful, am I not great?" -- or merely produce dull run-throughs.

Ms. Pires produces anything but dull run-throughs of these concertos, yet she never imposes any dominating idiosyncrasies of her own onto the music. That is, unless you count her generally warm, sweet, gentle style a personal quirk. I don't. To me, she makes the music come alive by submerging herself into it, all the while bringing out its intrinsic beauty. Ms. Pires is a virtuoso performer with an obvious love for her subject matter and a desire to make the most of it. What's more, Maestro Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra appear completely in accord with Ms. Pires's wishes, supporting her piano passages with a sympathetic accompaniment.

The first item Ms. Pires plays is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, which the composer wrote around 1800 and first published in 1804, premiering the work himself. No. 3 is not quite the precursor of the full-blown Romantic concertos we get in Nos. 4 and 5 but more like a later Mozart classical concerto. After a moderately lengthy orchestral introduction that sets the tone for a somewhat agitated opening Allegro con brio, Ms. Pires enters with the first of her lucid, clearheaded solo work. Even though we might have all heard this movement performed more quickly and perhaps with greater urgency, Ms. Pires's interpretation is one of simple clarity and spontaneity. She doesn't create the music's excitement; she simply delivers it.

And so it goes throughout the concerto. Ms. Pires lovingly caresses the central Largo and then provides an appropriate gusto for the closing Rondo: Allegro. It's not an earthshaking performance, but it matches almost anyone's for color, variety, and sheer joy.

The second number Ms. Pires plays is the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, which Beethoven composed between 1805 and 1806, premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself again as soloist. The piece begins with a piano solo, amiably handled by Ms. Pires. Unlike No. 3, which exhibited a good deal of youthful enthusiasm, the opening movement of No. 4 is more peaceful, more untroubled, and that's fully the impression Ms. Pires conveys. Her solo work is as tranquil as any you're likely to hear. Even when the orchestra joins in, the mood remains serene, with an elegance of line and texture close to ideal.

The second and third movements sound equally involving, Ms. Pires making her point about the performer not indulging in meaningless self-promotion but devoting herself entirely to the service of the music. She is a thoughtful, alert artist who provides a moving experience in both of these concertos.

Producer John Fraser and balance engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the concertos at Berwaldhalle, Stockholm in October 2013. The sound exhibits a modest sense of orchestral depth and, more important, strong dynamic contrasts and impact. There is a realistic stereo spread across the sound stage, a slight forwardness to the upper midrange, and a pleasant ambient glow to the instruments. The engineers capture a nicely balanced piano sound, too, not too close or too distant, but clear and lifelike.


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