“The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto n° 1 in C major, opus 15 – Piano Concerto n° 2 in B-Flat major, opus 19 – Piano Concerto n° 3 in C minor, opus 37 – Piano Concerto n° 4 in G major, opus 58 – Piano Concerto n° 5 in E-Flat major “Emperor”, opus 73 – Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, opus 43
Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor)
Recording: Walk Festival Hall, Teton Village, Wyoming (July 5-9, 2022) – 182’56
3 CDs Reference Recordings FR-751SACD – Booklet in English
Garrick Ohlsson has been part of the American classical music landscape for more than half a century. Since winning the Chopin International in 1970—the first and, so far, only American to win first place—he has evolved from a Chopin specialist into an artist with much to say about diverse musical eras and the composers who inspired them.
At a time when most pianists would sit back and reflect with mellow satisfaction on more than 50 years of achievement and acclaim, Ohlsson has taken the Beethoven challenge: five concertos recorded in five consecutive days. A new album features Ohlsson performing this pentateuch of piano concerto literature with conductor Sir Donald Runnicles leading the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra (GTMFO), an ensemble with an international pedigree. The performances were recorded last year in Walk Festival Hall, Teton Village, Wyoming.
The five concertos, composed between 1795 and 1809, represent a period of incredible stress, but intense creative development in Beethoven’s life. The first two concertos (Opuses 15 and 19, published in the reverse order of composition) came at a time when the composer had been studying with Haydn in Vienna. Beethoven was at the height of his powers as a pianist and improviser and beginning to find his way as a composer. These works are bold, imaginative and striking in their optimism, stretching the boundaries of the classical style.
Composed in or around 1800, the Piano Concerto in C minor bears the scars of political turmoil and the composer’s increasing deafness. The Piano Concerto n° 4 was premiered during the four-hour Monster Concert of December 22, 1808. It is a larger, more complex work in which the piano’s voice is heard even before the orchestra’s first notes. Beethoven was the soloist in this concerto, which also represented the last time the increasingly deaf composer was able to play a piano concerto in a concert setting. For context, this concert also included the premieres of Symphony n° 5 and Symphony n° 6. The siege of Vienna by Napoleon’s forces occurred in 1809, creating tortuous working conditions for Beethoven as he completed his final work in this genre, the Piano Concerto n° 5, the “Emperor”.
This recording should appeal to listeners with a conservative bent or those who like their Beethoven with a strong classical bias. While the first two concertos come off without a hitch, the orchestra does not do justice to the Third and Fourth and seems to miss the point of the Fifth altogether. This is largely because the performances have an unwavering dedication to classical style and do not capture the tectonic shift in feeling that occurred over a volatile 16-year period in political and cultural history.
The album begins on a positive note with delightful performances of the first two concertos, the most classical of the lot. Runnicles and the GTMFO provide an upbeat musical backdrop through which Ohlsson weaves the composer’s enchanting melodies and accoutrements with good cheer and consummate musicianship. Even for diehard Romantics, there are times in the late classical period for measured interpretations free of the excess which sometimes dooms emotional readings.
The Third Concerto is one where conductors and pianists divide into two camps. Some, like Runnicles and Ohlsson, prefer to remain in the classical mode, while others (e.g., a recording by Abbado and Argerich) take a more expressive approach. Runnicles and Ohlsson reach a livelier level of interpretation in the Piano Concerto n° 4. Here, Ohlsson steps outside the boundaries of the neat and nice, with phrases of silky charm and confident runs. A sense of urgency haunts the first movement cadenza with its long trill and piquant grace notes. To me, there are few moments in music as startling and liberating as the last movement’s final sprint to the finish line. Beethoven stuns with trills on D, F and A, blasting into a presto of spectacular proportions. The impact is in the pianist’s hands, and Ohlsson does not disappoint.
The Piano Concerto n° 5, however, was a let-down, as the conductor returned to a subdued point of view, a little light and unconvincing for my taste. In his defense, it must be very challenging to put together a “classical all-stars” orchestra in short order and expect to come up with a richly modulated interpretation. Even the tender second movement felt stilted and dull. Yet in spite of this, Ohlsson notably contributed unified passages of liquid fluidity and elegant tone. His hands coax eloquent runs from the keyboard, bringing the work to a proper, if not altogether rousing finish. To continue in the classical spirit, the album concludes with an early work by Beethoven, Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus.
In the final analysis, while this all-Beethoven album may not take the cake among passionate listeners, it offers commendable renditions of three of the five concertos and some beautiful playing by an artist who has fulfilled his youthful promise.