Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 "Emperor" (SACD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Hans Werner Henze, London Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 201.

It wasn't too long ago that Brilliant Classics re-released these 1973 DG recordings by Christoph Eschenbach on a regular CD. Now, the folks at Pentatone Music have re-mastered and re-released them all over again, this time on a hybrid SACD. They were fine performances in their day, and they still remain fine performances. Whether they are good enough to warrant such lavish treatment as these continued rereleases, I'm not sure. Nevertheless, like all of Beethoven's work, things of beauty are joys forever, so maybe we should be grateful for what we get.

Although I couldn't recall much about Eschenbach's recording of the Third Piano Concerto until I heard it on the Brilliant Classics reissue), I had fond memories of his Fifth Concerto, which comes up first on the new SACD. I used to own the recording 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 LP collection for many years, so it's good to hear it in such good sound. Eschenbach combines brilliant technique and careful thought in equal measure to produce what remains one of the best "Emperor" Concerto recordings you'll find.

As you 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 nickname, "Emperor," was not Beethoven's idea. In fact, he might not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven's publisher who called the piece "Emperor," possibly because 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 thing full of 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.

Christoph Eschenbach
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, one that never wanders off into extrovert showmanship for its own sake.

Interestingly, DG originally 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. Interestingly, too, both Eschenbach and Ashkenazy went on to successful conducting careers along with their piano playing.

The Pentatone disc's accompanying work, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, is not quite as successful under Eschenbach, Maestro Hans Henze, and the London Symphony Orchestra. It's not a matter of tempos so much--they are moderate--but contrasts and emphases. In any case, it's still a distinctive interpretation, the performers more than willing to stamp the music with the force of their own wills. I'm not sure, however, that it's all that playful, imaginative, or charming as it is lyrically expressive. Henze and Eschenbach here seem a little more intent on forcing us to like the music than in allowing us to like it.

DG recorded the Fifth Piano Concerto in 1973 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and the Third Piano Concerto in 1971 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, London. Polyhymnia International remastered the recordings for Pentatone at Baarn, The Netherlands in August 2014, releasing them for hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel playback. I did my listening in SACD two-channel using a Sony SACD player.

All of the sound in No. 5 is crisp and clear, the piano a tad forward in the hall, making it appear rather wider than it might sound in actuality. There is also a considerable sense of air and space from the ambient field, perhaps even too much, and a fine dynamic response. Timpani seem to benefit particularly well from the new mastering.

The orchestra in No. 3 appears very slightly more recessed than in No. 5, the piano still fairly close up although not quite as close as in No. 5. Overall, I found the sound here a little more convincing, more natural, smoother, and more lifelike than in No. 5.

Pentatone have issued the disc in a standard SACD case and a light-cardboard slipcover.

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.

Mission Statement

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