Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

Nicholas Angelich, piano; Laurence Equilbey, Insula Orchestra. Erato 0190295634179.

I don't know how the rest of you keep up. American pianist Nicholas Angelich (b. 1970) has made some two dozen albums already, but the only things I could remember were his Brahms piano concertos, maybe because I reviewed them. In any case, he's been playing piano since the age of five and done concerts throughout the world, so all that practice apparently pays off. He's very good. Here, he presents Beethoven's last two piano concertos, Numbers 4 and 5.

When Beethoven was writing his nine symphonies, they seemed to become monumental in size and scope very fast with his third. But with his five piano concertos, they sort of built up incrementally, with No. 4 being impressively large and No. 5 being monumentally impressive. The album begins with No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, completed in 1806 (around time the composer wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony). Beethoven made the opening movement melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisational. He then scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic, with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the concluding Rondo: Vivace. With that, we get a passionate, tempestuous, rhythmic, stormy, yet graceful final movement; you name it, Beethoven threw it in.

Angelich's dexterity at the keyboard is on full display in the Fourth's opening movement. He nimbly glides through the music, making it all seem effortless. He uses a Pleyel piano from 1892, a good compromise between what Beethoven might have heard in his own lifetime and what we have today, and the orchestra tries to remain true to the spirit of Beethoven. The piano resonates clearly and richly, if perhaps not quite as smoothly as a modern instrument. Anyway, Angelich makes the whole concerto sound full of strength and élan, meaning he makes the work appear both extemporaneous and elegant at the same time. His playing is filled with a vigorous energy and a lyrical polish, with maybe a greater emphasis on the former, especially in the fleet-footed finale.

Nicholas Angelich
Beethoven wrote 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. The piece begins with a big, bravura 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, as I've said, although the smallish size of the Insula Orchestra (about forty-six players) under Maestro Laurence Equilbey tends to make it more transparent than plush or weighty. Still, it holds its own.

Angelich's high-octane delivery is well suited to the first movement of the Fifth Concerto, even if it tends to dominate the orchestra more so than usual. Conductor and pianist keep the tempos on the urgent but not strident side, making for some exciting moments in the first and third movements. As for the beautifully meditative middle movement, it's fine, even if it's not as beautiful as Wilhelm Kempf's (DG) or as meditative as Stephen Kovacevich's (Philips). Angelich seems a little too matter of fact by comparison.

Producer Laure Casenave-Pere and engineer Thomas Dappelo recorded the concertos at La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France in March 2018. The sound of the piano and orchestra is generally refined and well balanced, if both appear a touch close. The highs are slightly rough, perhaps due to the closeness of the miking. Nevertheless, I particularly liked the realistic reproduction of the piano, which recreates a lifelike illusion. While the stereo width is more than adequate, the perception of depth is somewhat limited, making things not only a tad close but one-dimensional as well.


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.

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