Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Choral Fantasy. Laurence Equilbey, Accentus, Insula Orchestra. Erato 0190295505738.

The good news: The conductor, the orchestra, the chorus, and, of course, the music are all excellent.

The bad news: Erato chose to record the music live.

The conductor is Laurence Equilbey, a French music director of some renown in both the choral and orchestral fields. She founded the chamber choir Accentus in 1991 and here leads the Insula Orchestra, with which she is also the artistic and musical director.

Although the Triple Concerto gets top billing on the album cover, the program begins with the Choral Fantasy (more formally, the Fantasia for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra), Op. 80, which Beethoven wrote 1808. The composer premiered it with himself as soloist in a concert with his Piano Concerto No. 4, his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, and excerpts from his Mass in C major. That was surely a concert for the ages, and Beethoven wanted the Choral Fantasy to conclude the event, utilizing all the performers assembled. The soloists on the current album are Bertrand Chamayou, piano; Sandrine Piau, soprano; Anaik Morel, alto; Stanislas de Barbeyrac, tenor; and Florian Sempey, baritone; along with the Accentus choir and Insula Orchestra. Ms. Equilbey's performance may not live up to Beethoven's extraordinary occasion, but it's quite nice in any case.

The Insula Orchestra play on period instruments, which is a major plus in terms of my taste, and both pieces of music use a period Pleyel piano from 1892, which Ms. Equilbey says is a good compromise between the fortepiano of Beethoven's time and today's modern instruments. In any case, the music they make is pleasant, not harsh, brash, or soggy. More important, Ms. Equilbey keeps the generally genial mood of the piece moving smoothly and energetically, with both grace and charm. While it's true it zips along in the tradition of historical performances, it maintains a proper decorum. In other words, there is nothing stodgy about the reading, and its relationship with the composer's later and more-celebrated Ninth Symphony is more evident than ever.

Laurence Equilbey
Following the Choral Fantasy we get Beethoven's Triple Concerto (more formally, the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major), Op. 56, written in 1803, several years earlier than the Choral Fantasy. It's the only concerto Beethoven composed for more than one solo instrument. The soloists are Alexandra Conunova, violin; Natalie Clein, cello; and David Kadduch, piano, with Ms. Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra. Ms. Equilbey's rendition would have to be splendid, indeed, to compete with something like the star-studded cast of EMI's recording with David Oistrakh, violin; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (on EMI, Warner Classics, and remastered by JVC for Hi-Q). In any case, Ms. Equilbey's account is also quite nice.

Again, Ms. Equilbey keeps a strong forward momentum going, and the soloists intertwine effortlessly within the orchestral context. They maintain a reasonably balanced dialogue with the orchestra, although the piano tends to get a little drowned out at times by the other two instruments. Equilbey takes the slow central movement at an appropriately reflective gait, and Ms. Clein's cello sounds delightfully lyrical and not a little melancholy. The finale bursts forth with radiant beauty, perhaps more courtly and gracious than completely joyous but fitting in with the mood of the preceding movement.

Producer Laure Casenave-Pere and engineer Thomas Dappelo recorded the music live at the auditorium of La Seine Musicale, Boulogne, France in May 2017 and February 2018. As we might expect, the miking is fairly close, giving instrumental soloists an in-your-lap appearance. What's more, there's not a lot of depth to the orchestra nor much sense of ambience in the hall. When the chorus joins in, they sound a bit too strident for my ears. Fortunately, the sound is fairly clean, with clear definition and strong dynamics. The engineers have thankfully reduced audience noise and edited out any applause.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa