Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 (CD review)

Norman Krieger, piano; Joann Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca DD41154/481 5583.

The composer is Beethoven and the music is his Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5. No questions there; pretty well-known pieces from one of the most well-known musicians the world has ever known. The conductor is Joann Falletta and the ensemble is the Buffalo Philharmonic. No questions there, either. Ms. Falletta and her orchestra have a boatload of recordings to their credit and a ton of fans. The soloist is pianist Norman Krieger, and there you may have some questions. He's been around for a while and has several albums to his name, but he probably isn't yet a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Krieger is "an American pianist and a professor at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. He is a recipient of numerous prizes, including one from the Paderewski Foundation. He studied under the guidance of Esther Lipton in Los Angeles. By the age of 15, he obtained a scholarship from the Juilliard School, where he was educated by Adele Marcus. He was Alfred Brendel's and Maria Curcio's student in London, and he obtained an artist's diploma from the New England Conservatory. By 2011 he became a professor of music at the USC Thornton. He has collaborated with such musicians as Sheri Greenawald, Livia Sohn, and Jian Wang as well as both Tokyo and Manhattan String Quartets. He also was invited to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and was a frequent participant at the Mostly Mozart Festival. He has recorded two Johannes Brahms concertos, which he has also performed with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra."

So, fair enough. He's a fine pianist, and the music, though overly familiar and thoroughly represented in the catalogue, can always welcome a new interpreter.

First up on the program is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, which he wrote in 1800 and premiered in 1803 with the composer himself as soloist. (Interestingly, when Beethoven first performed it, he had not yet had time to write down the complete score, and most of it he performed from memory.) Anyway, Krieger has the benefit of over two hundred years of tradition behind him, and his performance is in the mainstream of those performing practices.

The concerto begins with a lengthy introduction, which Ms. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic play with an easy, breezy charm, turning up the energy just before Mr. Krieger's entrance. That entry has plenty of punch, so you know Krieger is showing his authority and dominance from there on out. In the Largo that follows, Krieger takes things at a comfortable pace and communicates a welcome sense of peace and calm. It is only in the final Allegro that Krieger seems to miss a bit of edge and energy, and the movement loses a little something of its spirited fun.

Norman Krieger
Then we get the Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor" Concerto, which Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolf. No one is quite sure why the concerto's publisher in England, J. B. Cramer, gave it the nickname "Emperor" except as a marketing tool. Maybe to go with the composer's "Eroica" Symphony, or maybe because Napoleon had invaded Beethoven's Vienna during its composition. Who knows? Whatever, Mr. Krieger's interpretation is again in the mainstream of modern performance practice.

The opening is big and dramatic, as it should be, helped, no doubt, by Decca's live, close up sound, and the Buffalo Orchestra's glowing support. The first movement loses very little tension along its way, although Krieger takes it at a slightly slower tempo than some other pianists. Then Krieger gives us a lovely Adagio, followed by an appropriately bouncy finale.

Throughout the performance of the Fifth Concerto Krieger's playing sounds graceful and flowing, and Ms. Falletta's direction is equally refined, the Buffalo ensemble sounding as good as any in the country. That said, the recording may appeal more to Beethoven collectors than to the general public, who have an enormous catalogue of choices before them. For instance, for a big, traditional production, I still enjoy Ashkenazy and Solti on Decca; for a more intimate, heartfelt rendition, I like Kempf and Leitner on DG; for near-audiophile sound I would choose Serkin and Ozawa on Telarc or FIM; and for probably the best all-around recommendation, Kovocevich and Davis on Philips.

Producer and engineer Bernd Gottinger recorded the concertos live at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in October 2004 and March 2015. Studio recordings of symphony orchestras used to be the norm for all the big record companies until cost factors got in the way, and now the companies all seem to favor live recordings, leaving only the smaller labels to do studio jobs. Oh, well. Decca also retain the applause after each work. I suppose they think the clapping increases the listener's appreciation for the live event. I don't share their enthusiasm.

Fortunately, Decca didn't record the orchestra for the Third Concerto too very closely, so there is still a measure of room ambience present, as well as a natural warmth and roundness to the music. The piano, though, sounds very close relative to the orchestra. Still, it sounds OK. With the Fifth Concerto eleven years later, however, the sound of both the orchestra and the piano appears closer, with less room resonance in play. Nevertheless, there is good detail and definition to the proceedings, and I'm sure most listeners will enjoy the clarity and impact of the sound.

JJP

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


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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