“Beethoven: Complete 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, opus 58 – Piano Concerto n° 5 in E-Flat major “Emperor”, opus 73
Jan Lisiecki (piano), Tomo Keller (leader), Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Live recording: Konzerthaus Berlin, Germany (December 2018) – 173’53
3 CDs Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 76377 (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in English and German
Music lovers all over the world are commemorating Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Many symphony and chamber orchestras had planned expansive programming and celebrations in honor of the composer’s towering legacy, but fate intervened as symphony halls, conservatories, and festivals around the globe have been brought to a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, events have been so tragic and profoundly disruptive to every aspect of life that we need the sanctuary and solace of Beethoven’s music more than ever.
Even before the shutdown in Philadelphia by the end of February, there were already scads of empty seats over public gatherings at the kick-off of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s BeethovenNOW festival with piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov performing the composer’s first two piano concertos. By March, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was ready to lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in all nine Beethoven symphonies over several weeks, but performance of the opening program of Symphony n° 5 and n° 6 was canceled, yet, the orchestra was onstage March 12 playing to an empty Verizon Hall as the performance was live-streamed online.
Hopefully, once the pandemic is under control, the Philadelphians will reschedule the whole BeethovenNOW series. Meanwhile, there are alternatives. Deutsche Grammophon has released several new collections of Beethoven’s repertory. Andris Nelsons leads the Weiner Philharmoniker in a stellar compilation of all nine symphonies recorded over the last two years. And pianist Jan Lisiecki and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields just released the CD and DVD video of their performances featuring of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, recorded live over the course of a week at the Konzerthaus, Berlin in December 2018.
The virtuosity of both Jan Lisiecki and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is almost a given. These are defining performances that add to the understanding of the breadth of Beethoven’s entire repertoire. Lisiecki gives them relevance and illuminates the mystique of Ludwig van Beethoven’s musicality, beyond its technical brilliance.
In the CD booklet, Lisiecki describes his approach to the piano concertos, commenting that he “didn’t conceive them as a cycle. Despite this, they belong together because they reveal such a differentiated picture of Beethoven.” The pianist notes how Beethoven’s first two concertos honor Mozart’s legacy and he writes of the thematic “heroism” in the “Emperor”, but “Here, too, we find passages of great elegance. Beethoven is never one-sided. He always tests the limits. Yet the way the piano and the orchestra interrupt each other and the way the piano asserts itself also reveals his sense of humour.”
Lisiecki’s recordings of Chopin showcase his technical clarity and interpretive artistry, and he brings that same sensibility to Beethoven. In the program notes, Lisiecki comments on the exploratory avenues Beethoven intended in the concertos. Lisiecki taps into the fact that Beethoven was experimenting with concerto forms and that there should be a “real time” interplay between the soloist and the orchestra musicians. “His score requires precise instructions on dynamics, but the phrasing remains a question for the performers.”, the soloist writes. This is most vividly evident in Lisiecki’s performance of Concerto n° 4. The quiet majesty of the solo passages in the opening bars typifies a pianist who is never showy, but vividly part of the whole architecture, not upstaging any of the musicians. Lisiecki has a fluid command of the tempos.
Lisiecki and the orchestra turn in a radiant performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with muscled chamber music dynamics throughout with violinist Tomo Keller as the designated ‘leader’. The entire ensemble is in top form. Lisiecki and the orchestra lean into its subtler qualities without diminishing its explosive musical dramaturg.
These Deutsche Grammophon discs showcase superb recording and mastering engineering by Lukas Kowalski and live recording balance by Stephen Flock at the Emil Berliner Studios.
Lewis J. Whittington