Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (CD review)

With an assortment of cadenzas. Jerome Lowenthal, piano; Carl Topilow, unnamed orchestra. LP Classics 1008 A/B (2-disc set).

My Random House Dictionary defines a cadenza as "an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised, introduced near the end of an aria or a movement of a concerto." I mention this at the outset because that's the idea behind this recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. That is, Beethoven wrote cadenzas for the first and third movements of the concerto, and since Beethoven's time other composers have offered their own. On the present album pianist Jerome Lowenthal has gathered together twenty such cadenzas by eleven different composers and presents them along with the concerto itself on two compact discs. The idea is to hear, compare, and enjoy these various cadenzas from the nineteenth century to our own. It does, indeed, make for fascinating listening, especially in the capable hands of Mr. Lowenthal.

For the benefit of those of you who may not know Mr. Lowenthal, his Wikipedia page describes him as an American classical pianist, a member of the piano faculty at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was also chair of the piano department. Additionally, Lowenthal is on the faculty at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. He made his debut at thirteen with the Philadelphia Orchestra; then, returning to the United States from Jerusalem in 1963, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2. Since then, he has performed with such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuri Temirkanov, Leonard Slatkin, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Monteux, and Leopold Stokowski. He has played sonatas with Itzhak Perlman, piano duos with Ronit Amir, his late wife, and Ursula Oppens, as well as quintets with the Lark Quartet, Avalon Quartet, and Shanghai Quartet.
His studies included lessons with Olga Samaroff in Philadelphia, William Kapell and Eduard Steuermann at the Juilliard School in New York, and Alfred Cortot at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He was a prizewinner at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels (1960) and the Busoni Competition, and he is frequently a judge in international piano competitions.

So, here's what we have on the two CD's under review. Disc one contains the piano concerto itself plus two cadenzas by Beethoven, first and third movements; then first and third-movement cadenzas by Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Hans Von Bulow, Johannes Brahms, and Camille Saint-Saens. Disc two contains the concerto again, this time with first and third-movement cadenzas by Frederic Rzewski, Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Ernst Von Dohnanyi, and Nicolai Medtner.

As for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote it between 1805 and 1806, premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. For most of us, it's the concerto on the album that matters and how Mr. Lowenthal plays it because if he doesn't do it justice, none of the following cadenzas would make much difference. Fortunately, Lowenthal does do the piece and the ensuing cadenzas justice.

The concerto begins with a brief piano solo, projected with authority by Mr. Lowenthal. He handles the solo part with authority, and the orchestra provides a gentle, restrained accompaniment. But it's really Lowenthal's presence one needs to consider. He displays a complete mastery of the piano while offering an unmannered performance. You won't find any histrionics here, nothing that would set his playing apart as eccentric or showy. It is a charming realization of Beethoven, virtuosic yet reserved. As an interpretation, Lowenthal's reading may lack some color, but that isn't the point. He is not trying to impose his own personality on the music but let it speak for itself. In particular, he is trying to show and compare the various cadenzas, which requires him to be as objective as possible. So, yes, his is a fine, honest realization of the work.

Now, about those cadenzas. The first of these are by Clara Schumann. They seem steeped in high Romanticism, yet they are fairly plain and graceful, too. Although Beethoven left instructions that the third-movement cadenza be short, Schumann's is relatively lengthy (only Rubinstein's is longer). Whatever, it tends to repeat earlier material from the concerto, giving it a more unifying quality than most such cadenzas. Her pieces are quite charming.

Anton Rubinstein was among the more-controversial pianists of the nineteenth century, loved by most listeners, hated by others. His cadenzas reflect this attitude, being some of the most forceful in the collection, his third-movement cadenza seeming to go on forever.

Hans von Bulow was a contemporary of Rubinstein and an equally gifted composer-pianist who left definite, and sometimes contradictory, impressions on his listeners. Understandably, his cadenzas are also strongly enlivening.

Then there's Brahms. These cadenzas sound as though they belong in one of Brahms's own concertos yet have a sweet, touching quality about them, too. The third-movement cadenza is brief and to the point; Beethoven would surely have approved.

Disc one ends with cadenzas from Camille Saint-Saens. They seem almost impressionistic by comparison to the previous cadenzas on the album. Still, they are lovely, and Lowenthal plays them lovingly.

For the main performance of the concerto on disc two, Lowenthal gives us a new first-movement cadenza by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) that he wrote just for Lowenthal. However, Rzewski requested that Lowenthal play it with improvisation and spontaneity. Lowenthal says he complied, and while it's as effective a cadenza as any, it clearly betrays its modern origins in its less melodious, slightly more discordant structure. I think it works better on its own than integrated into the Beethoven work.

Ferruccio Busoni won first prize in a competition with, among other things, his Beethoven cadenzas, and they helped launch his career. They are among the more vibrant of the cadenzas on the program.

Leopold Godowsky was another important pianist-composer of the early twentieth century, and his cadenzas struck me as being rather ornate, well embroidered as it were. They are a little more showy than the others, perhaps because Godowski himself enjoyed impressing his audience with his own skills.

Finally, we get the cadenzas of Ernst von Dohnanyi and Nicolai Medtner, both composer-pianists of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Of the two, Dohnanyi appears more to adhere to Beethoven's original ideas and Medtner to stray off to his own ground. Lowenthal admits that Medtner's cadenzas are his favorites, and while I cannot entirely agree with him, certainly Lowenthal gives them a worthy showing in bravura style and refinement.

Producer/editor Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre made the recording in Cleveland, Ohio in 2007, and LP Classics released it in 2014. The sound comes across beautifully balanced, not only left and right but among the instruments, with no frequencies standing out or recessed and the piano realistically centered, neither too close nor too distant. Smooth and polished, the sonics are half the pleasure one gets from the album, the piano well defined amidst a lightly reverberant acoustic.

JJP

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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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa