Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Hannes Minnaar, piano; Jan Willem de Vriend, The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Challenge Classics CC72672.

I wasn't familiar with the Dutch pianist Hannes Minnaar (b. 1984), so I visited his biography Web page, where I found the following information: "Hannes Minnaar received international acclaim after winning prizes at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (3rd prize) and the Geneva International Music Competition (2nd prize). He studied with Jan Wijn at the Amsterdam Conservatory, graduating with the highest distinction and took Master classes with Alfred Brendel, Menahem Pressler and Ferenc Rados. In addition, he studied organ with Jacques van Oortmerssen.

"Minnaar was soloist with various orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, during which time he worded with conductors such as Marin Alsop, Herbert Blomstedt, Frans Brüggen, Eliahu Inbal and Edo de Waart. He gives recitals in many European countries and around the world. He performed at the Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Gewandhaus (Leipzig) and Musashino Hall (Tokyo) and was invited to the festivals of La Roque d'Anthéron, Bordeaux (Jacobins), Bahrein and Guangzhou."

With that in mind, I would add that this release of Beethoven's Piano Concertos 4 and 5 with Maestro Jan Willem de Vriend and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra would appear to be Mr. Minnaar's fourth recording overall and his first album working with a full symphony orchestra. The results sound generally good, although some idiosyncrasies arise in the performance that may either make the disc a favorite for life or a questionable choice. I found it appealing in several ways, but I'm not entirely sure I'll be returning to it very often.

The program begins with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, which he wrote between 1805 and 1806 (around the same time he wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony) premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. The opening movement is melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisatory. Beethoven scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the finale. Then, we get a passionate, tempestuous, rhythmic, stormy, graceful third movement; you name it, Beethoven goes for broke.

Minnaar's piano playing throughout both concertos is smooth, fluid, virtuosic, and sweetly lyrical. It sounds particularly effective in the opening of the Fourth Concerto, nicely capturing the autumnal glow of the music while still projecting a good deal of spirit and vivacity. Indeed, the solo parts are most attractive in their soaring lines, which manage to convey a poetic beauty along with their sometimes almost explosive tone.

Hannes Minnaar
The controversy might come, however, in the speeds the performers adopt. Minaar and de Vriend appear to take Beethoven at his word in terms of tempo, whether the composer intended his metronome markings be taken literally or not. Nor am I sure whether it was Minnaar's decision to play things as fast as they do or Maestro de Vriend's, but, whatever, the relatively quick tempos can be a bit distracting at times, especially in the slow movements. I compared the timings of both concertos to those of several other recordings I had on hand--Wilhelm Kempff, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel, Francois-Frederic Guy, Stephen Kovacevich, Leif Ove Andsnes, and others--and found that in almost every movement Minnaar and his accompaniment were faster. Interestingly, the only recordings that took a faster gait were those of Melvyn Tan and Sir Roger Norrington, who play on period instruments in a historical style and, thus, adhere as strictly as possible to Beethoven's actual tempo markings. I can't say I care overly much for Tan/Norrington's "authentic" approach, either, but at least with a period-instrument presentation we expect the brisker pace. Not so with Minnaar and his modern support; instead, it just sounds a little odd.

Anyway, minor tempo concerns aside, the performance of No. 4 well captures, as I say, the work's mostly gentle mood swings, and it provides enough energy along the way to keep one interested.

Beethoven wrote the 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. The piece begins with a big, bravura opening Allegro, the piano entering immediately. In the central Adagio we get one of the Beethoven's loveliest melodies, a brief duet between piano and orchestra. Then, there is a hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro, which takes the concerto to a glowing conclusion.

Beethoven intended No. 5 to sound monumental, and Minnaar and company supply some decent fireworks. The Adagio loses a little something in sheer beauty, due to the quick pace, perhaps, but the elegance of Minnaar's playing helps mitigate the situation. Then, things end in an appropriate blaze of notes.

Producer, engineer, editor, and mastering supervisor Bert van der Wolf made the recording for stereo and multichannel playback via hybrid SACD at the Muziekcentrum Enschede, The Netherlands, in May 2014. I listened to the disc's two-channel SACD layer using a Sony SACD player, although a person can, of course, also listen in two-channel from the regular stereo layer with any standard CD player.

The orchestral sound is slightly soft and warm, possibly the result of the mildly reverberant hall used for the recording. The piano appears isolated in front of the ensemble, also sounding just a touch soft and warm. I don't mean this to appear disparaging, by the way; both the orchestra and the piano sound about as they might during a live concert from a moderate distance. Otherwise, detailing is fine, dynamics can be robust, stereo spread is wide, and dimensionality is fairly realistic (with some instruments seeming even farther away than they might sound live).


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