The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Beethoven recordings available

Verdi's Macbeth

Following the overwhelming popularity of our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Handel recordings, we have now gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Beethoven's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from legendary performers like Artur Schnabel and Otto Klemperer to modern masters like Isabelle Faust and Riccardo Chailly. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. The 'Buy Now' links take you to the relevant recording at the website of classical music retailer Presto Classical.

 

Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Teldec

The freshness of this set is remarkable. You do not have to listen far to be swept up by its spirit of renewal and discovery, and in Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made an inspired choice. Theirs are not eccentric readings of these old warhorses – far from it. But they could be called idiosyncratic – from Harnoncourt would you have expected anything less? – and to the extent that the set gives a shock to received ideas it is challenging. It does not seek to banish all conventional wisdom about the pieces, but it has asked a lot of questions about them, as interpreters should, and I warm to it not only for the boldness of its answers but for finding so many of the right questions to ask.

These are modern performances which have acquired richness and some of their focus from curiosity about playing styles and sound production of the past. What can be deduced about the likely nature of mass, weight and orchestral perspectives and how the musical language was spoken from what is known of instruments and performance practices in Beethoven’s time? Harnoncourt offers some answers that will be familiar to admirers of his Teldec recording of the symphonies (11/91). He favours leaner string textures than the norm and gets his players in the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe to command a wide range of expressive weight and accent; this they do with an immediacy of effect that is striking. Yet there is a satisfying body to the string sound, too. From all the orchestral sections the playing is of the highest class – the woodwind and brass often pungent, the thwack of the timpani leathery and distinctive in tutti passages (and the player of them relishing the big solo moment after the cadenza in the first movement of the Concerto No 3 in C minor). The performances gain an edge from all this which has nothing to do with a ‘period’ stance but everything to do with what I take to be Harnoncourt’s objectives: to regain the freshness and force of what was once new, to recover the qualities of exhilaration and disturbance that these works possess.

I also like very much the way the playing seems to have recourse to eloquence without having to strive for it, and that is characteristic of Aimard’s contribution as well. Strong contrasts are explored and big moments encompassed as part of an unforced continuity in which nothing is hurried. Melodic values are sustained to the full, yet even when the playing appears at its most relaxed it is moving forward, alert to what may be around the next corner. The big moments do indeed stand out: one of them is the famous exchange of dramatic gestures between piano and orchestra in the development of the E flat Concerto’s first movement (at 10'55"); another the equally dramatic but very different exchange when the piano re-enters at the start of the development in the first movement of the G major Concerto (8'21"). At these junctures, conductor and pianist allow the gestures to disrupt the rhythmic continuity to a degree I don’t remember previously encountering. (And there is another instance at Aimard’s very first entry in the B flat Concerto.) Over the top? I think not, but risky maybe, and if you have strong views as to what the rubrics permit in Beethoven, or have swallowed a metronome, you may react strongly. For make no mistake, Aimard is as intrepid an explorer here as Harnoncourt – by conviction, I am sure, not simply by adoption. I find him personable and persuasive, as well as abundantly capable of firing up the orchestra to make things happen as much as they and the conductor inspire and set the scene for him.

Technically, he is superbly equipped. You notice this everywhere but perhaps especially in the finales, brimful of spontaneous touches and delight in their eventfulness and in the sheer pleasure of playing them. I need to single out the finale of the Emperor, which tingles with a continuously vital, constantly modulated dynamic life that it too rarely receives; so many players make it merely rousing. And among the first movements, I must mention that of the G major Concerto as a quite exceptional achievement, as I see it, for the way Harnoncourt and his soloist find space for the fullest characterisation of the lyricism and diversity of the solo part – Aimard begins almost as if improvising the opening statement, outside time – while integrating these qualities with the larger scheme. It is the most complex movement in the concertos and I cannot remember when I enjoyed a version of it at once so directional and free as a bird.

The first movement of the E flat Concerto is nearly as good, lacking only the all-seeing vision and authority Brendel brings to it, and perhaps a touch of Brendel’s ability to inhabit and define its remoter regions. In general, Aimard imposes himself as a personality less than Brendel – I have been revisiting his sumptuous set of the concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and Rattle while getting to know this new one. In spite of being different exercises, their distinction touches at several points and is comparable in degree. What Aimard doesn’t match is the variety of sound and the amplitude of Brendel’s expressiveness in the first two concertos’ slow movements. Exactly how you hit largo in the C major Concerto (No 1) while conveying two slow beats in the bar, not four, is tricky; but it is immediately evident that Brendel is moving (and keeping moving) in a much richer interior world. These magnificent early achievements are no less characteristic of Beethoven than his later music; the slow movement of the B flat Concerto (No 2) is another high point of Brendel’s set, and by the side of it, inevitably perhaps, Aimard’s version seems plainer.

Balances are good, with the piano placed in a concert-hall perspective. However the balance on the piano tends to change a bit when we reach the first-movement cadenzas, and sometimes very slightly within them. The cadenzas, all Beethoven’s, are the long one in the C major Concerto (the soloist has a choice of three) and the second (less often played than the other) in the G major. Given the daring quality of the enterprise, it’s curious to find the first movement of the C major treated so sedately by Aimard, the cadenza included (his timing 19'13", as opposed to Brendel’s 17'06"). I shall return to this work less often than to the other four, I think, where I’ve found a balance of imagination and rigour that is exactly to my taste, much delight and refreshment, and where I’ve sometimes been blown away. Stephen Plaistow (April 2003)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Paul Lewis pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek

Harmonia Mundi

With this three-disc album of Beethoven’s piano concertos Paul Lewis complements his earlier set of the 32 sonatas and also his appearances at the Proms this summer where for the first time all five concertos will be played by a single artist. So may I say at once that Harmonia Mundi’s eagerly awaited set is a superlative achievement and that Lewis’s partnership with Jirí Belohlávek is an ideal match of musical feeling, vigour and refinement.

True, for aficionados of eccentricity – even of brilliant eccentricity – from the likes of Gould, Pletnev and Mustonen, Lewis may at times seem overly restrained but the rewards of such civilised, musically responsible and vital playing seem to me infinite. Above all there is no sense of an artist looking over his shoulder to see what other pianists have come up with. Throughout the cycle Lewis is enviably and naturally true to his own distinctive lights, his unassuming but shining musicianship always paramount. His stylistic consistency can make the singling-out of this or that detail irrelevant, yet how could I fail to mention Lewis’s and Belohlávek’s true sense of the Allegro con brio in the First Concerto, in music-making that is vital but never driven? Less rugged than, say, Serkin, such playing is no less personal and committed. In the central Largo Lewis achieves a quiet, hauntingly sustained poise and eloquence, while in the finale his crisp articulation sends Beethoven’s early ebullience dancing into captivating life.

The same virtues characterise the Second Concerto; but when it comes to the Third, Lewis and Belohlávek (and one is always aware of a true partnership) hit a more controversial note. The first movement is less con brio than from most, as if to emphasise Beethoven’s step towards a darker region of the imagination (what EM Forster memorably called “Beethoven’s C minor of life”), while the finale is thought-provoking in its restraint. Yet once again Lewis’s comprehensive mastery is devoid of all overt display, and in the Fourth Concerto his playing achieves a rare nimbleness, affection and transparency. And if there are those who, again, wish for a higher degree of drama and assertion, others will recognise an artist who, in Charles Rosen’s words, achieves so much while appearing to do so little (pianists such as Lipatti, Solomon and Clara Haskil come to mind). At the same time the Fourth Concerto contains some delightful surprises. Lewis’s ad libitum flourish at 6'12" in the finale provides an exuberant touch, as do his deft and witty arpeggiations of the chords just before the concerto’s homecoming. Here in particular is an engaging and playful rejoinder to the Andante con moto’s introspection, the entire performance delectably animated and light-fingered. Nor is there a hint of strain or strenuous characterisation in the Fifth Concerto. Lewis’s first entry in the Adagio has a slight catch in the voice, as it were, to register the music’s sublimity, and his overall approach is devoid of the tub-thumping rhetoric familiar from too many Emperors.

And so, all in all, these records take their place among the finest Beethoven piano concerto performances so that even when you recall beloved issues by Wilhelm Kempff, Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia (to name but four), Lewis ensures that you return refreshed and with a renewed sense of Beethoven’s range and beauty. Personally I would never want to be without any of those previous discs, nor without Argerich’s never-to-be-completed recordings (sadly she considers the Fourth Concerto outside her scope; can her friends and musical partners Nelson Freire and Stephen Kovacevich persuade her otherwise?). Balance and sound are natural and exemplary, leaving us to look forward to Lewis’s forthcoming CD of the Diabelli Variations, for Brendel the greatest of all keyboard works. This is a cycle to live with and revisit. Bryce Morrison (September 2010)

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'The Beethoven Journey' (Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf

Sony

Review of Vol 3: To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity, for the company has been most engaging, by turns profound and delightful. It’s a rare treat to have the Choral Fantasy as a juicy extra to the concertos. I was made more than usually aware of its original context – as the finale of the famously epic concert that also saw the premieres of, among others, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Concerto; suddenly I noticed connections between the Fantasy and the Fourth that previously passed me by. Robert Levin may be matchless in conveying the rhetoric of the extended piano opening but Andsnes manages to be lithe and spontaneous-sounding, and doesn’t overplay hints of melodrama – dangerously tempting with all those diminished sevenths scattered about. The Mahler CO wind are predictably characterful in their variations on the theme that prefigures the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the chorus are fervent without sounding too butch. That’s in part down to the performers and in part surely the recording, in that most eloquent of spaces, the Prague Rudolfinum.

The Fantasy is much more than just a handy filler but it’s the Fifth Concerto that is likely to be the real draw. So how does this one stack up? Andsnes makes his mark in the initial flourish with playing that has the requisite steel but which is tempered with a twinkle. The qualities that made the previous instalments so compelling are here too: the naturalness with which piano and orchestra meld and converse and, at times, tussle; the airiness of the textures; the subtlety of the details. The clarinet phrases (at 1'21"), for instance, dance more than those of Rattle’s BPO. And the Mahler CO’s timpanist adds to the buoyancy of effect but again subtlety is the watchword. In a way Andsnes reminds me of Schnabel in his sureness of touch, albeit in a very different style; Kissin’s point-making and self-conscious massiveness have no place here.

The string introduction to the slow movement is another glorious passage and – praise be – it’s not too slow (though I must confess to a guilty pleasure in Gilels’s rapt reading, ultra-spacious though it is). Andsnes is limpid, apparently simple, in those deliquescent phrases. But one of the most impressive aspects of this reading is the transition from slow movement to finale. So often it bumps: Pollini, Kissin…I could go on. Perahia on the other hand is just right, as is Brendel. And so is Andsnes. It helps that none of these go hell for leather in the last movement, instead imbuing the muscularity of the writing, with its ungainly rhythms, with a healthy dose of gleefulness. The unanimity in the closing bars between Andsnes and his orchestra says it all. Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy. Harriet Smith (Awards issue 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Yefim Bronfman pf Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich / David Zinman

Brilliant Classics (originally Arte Nova)

This Zurich performance of the First Concerto is beautifully articulated. True, there are moments of grandeur but the overall impression is of a poised, at times chamber-like traversal, with sculpted pianism and crisply pointed orchestral support. The sensation of shared listening, between Bronfman and the players and between the players themselves, is at its most acute in the First Concerto’s Largo, which although kept on a fairly tight rein is extremely supple (the woodwinds in particular excel). In the finale, Bronfman and the Tonhalle provide a clear, shapely aural picture.

Bronfman’s B flat Concerto (No 2) has the expected composure, the many running passages in the first movement polished if relatively understated. Again the slow movement is full of unaffected poetry and the finale (with the odd added embellishment) is appropriately buoyant – has Bronfman ever played better?

Rather than opt for superficial barnstorming, Yefim Bronfman and David Zinman offer us a discreet, subtly voiced and above all durable Emperor, that rewards listening with increasing musical dividends. Bronfman plays with a light, precise though never brittle touch, always phrasing elegantly and dipping his tone whenever important instrumental lines need to be heard. There are numerous details that reveal how minutely all the participants are listening to each other. The slow movement unfolds in a mood of unruffled calm, Bronfman’s first entry gentle, delicate, with an appropriate, even touching simplicity. The finale is brisk and energetic and the way Bronfman keeps accompanying rhythmic figurations light and well buoyed is most appealing.

The fill-ups are worthwhile, the Choral Fantasy’s long solo opening more thoughtful than usual and with a bright, easy-going contribution from the chorus. Nothing is ever forced or overstated and the contrast in the seven-minute Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage between worrying stillness and the first signs of a redeeming breeze, ingeniously painted by slowly swirling triplets, is superbly handled.

It is hard to imagine anyone being less than satisfied with Bronfman and Zinman, the Tonhalle Orchestra scoring top marks for teamwork, their woodwinds sounding fully on a par with Europe’s best. Superbly balanced sound helps clinch an unmissable bargain.

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Maria João Pires pf Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

DG

Even with a never-ending stream of Beethoven piano concerto recordings, whether from established masters (Kempff, Arrau, Gilels, etc) or work in progress (Andsnes and Sudbin), few performances come within distance of Pires’s Classical/Romantic perspective. In her own memorable ‘artist’s note’ she speaks of that knife-edge poise between creator and recreator, of what must finally be resolved into a ‘primal simplicity’. And here you sense that she is among those truly great artists who, in Charles Rosen’s words, appear to do so little and end by doing everything (his focus on Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Solomon).

Not since Myra Hess have I heard a more rapt sense of the Fourth Concerto’s ineffable poetry, whether in the unfaltering poise of her opening, her radiant, dancing Vivace finale or, perhaps most of all, in the Andante’s nodal and expressive centre, where she achieves wonders of eloquence and transparency. Never for a moment does she over-reach herself or force her pace and sonority. Others such as Arrau may speak with a weightier voice but even that great pianist would surely have marvelled at the purity and sheen of Pires’s playing. Few pianists have ever been more true to their own lights and it is hardly surprising that her many performances of this concerto in London and elsewhere have become the stuff of legends.

Much the same could be said of her way with the Third Concerto, where she is equally attuned to Beethoven’s ‘C minor of that life’ (EM Forster). Few have achieved a greater translucency in the central Largo or more subtly poetic virtues elsewhere. All this makes it difficult to celebrate the ‘interpretations’ of pianists such as the not always endearing Glenn Gould, Pletnev or Mustonen. Pires’s performances are quite simply of another order. She is well balanced and recorded, and Daniel Harding and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are more than warm and sympathetic partners. It is my dearest wish that this will become a complete cycle. Bryce Morrison (October 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Murray Perahia pf Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink

Sony Classical

Integration: the difference in quality of this recording has to do not so much with the remarkable soloist as with the definition that comes from superb orchestral playing and direction and from everyone working together. The placing, length, weight and colour of every note have been considered and these quantities and qualities are precise. The air of purpose about the playing – and I do not mean that it sounds just well drilled – is so compelling as to make you feel these concertos couldn’t be done in any other way.

Textures glow with sonority, the massive and the delicate alike. The colours are so sharp as to appear an aspect of the linear energy, inseparable from the continuity; you don’t have the impression they are merely playing over the face of the music. I am aware there are colleagues writing in Gramophone who have reviewed many more recordings of Beethoven piano concertos than I but I risk the statement that the excellence of Haitink and the Concertgebouw in these has not been surpassed. 

I noticed little deterioration in the quality of sound on the long sides. The recordings, made in the Concertgebouw, reflect the acoustic character of the hall, and the balances suggest the natural perspective of solo piano with orchestra as we might experience it there from a good seat. When you turn to other records you may be struck by how unnaturally imminent the piano often is in relation to the rest. You are likely to be impressed here, I think, by the depth of the perspective, by the clear placing of everything in the picture and by how well the recording team have captured the lightness and translucence of the sound. Above all, Haitink has given the sound variety of weight. The beginning of the C minor’s first movement, for instance, is refreshingly lithe and crisp, with a late 18th- rather than late 19th-century gravitas to it, and it makes you think straight away of the concerto in the same key by Mozart for which Beethoven had such admiration and without which his own might not have been written the way it is. The sound gives you a heightened sense of where the piece comes from and where it belongs in Beethoven’s work. But then equally admirable is the way Haitink characterises Beethoven, through the sound, when he is at his most original: at the beginning of the Fourth Concerto’s slow movement, for example, where the string writing has you by the throat, and again at the moment in the finale of the G major, at the first tutti, where the trumpets and drums enter for the first time, with electrifying effect. When Perahia enters in the C minor first movement you realize just how skilfully the scene has been set and the stage arranged for his performance to make the best effect. I would count this movement and the finale of the G major as two of the finest things he has done on records.

The Allegro con brio of the C minor is not at all small-scale, but it has a crystalline elegance of sound – and to that extent a Mozartian quality – which is greatly to my taste, and what Perahia does amounts in my estimation to a brilliant re-creation. The cadenza and the following dialogue with the timpani are high spots. The G major last movement too is irresistible, brought off as a tour de force with vivacity tempered by just the right quantities of delicacy and balletic grace: it is tremendously fast but impeccably articulate. The energy and the transparency are delightful but it is the range of the playing which astonishes. And there are marvels too in the finale of the C minor: but there I found brilliance and elegance a little too much to the fore, as if this was how Mendelssohn might have played it. The presto at the end doesn’t seem much of a change from what has gone before. 

I mentioned the range: the crystalline quality of Perahia’s sound, so characteristic of him, can sometimes appear too unvaried, though in saying this I express only the smallest of reservations. He never asks you to admire his fingers but you can be made aware of hammers and attacks in a way that would not be brought to mind by Kempff (DG), say, or Gilels (Warner Classics). In Pollini’s classic account of the G major Concerto with Böhm (DG) you sense that he is a little more relaxed with it and that all those notes in the first movement sound a mite longer, while being just as precisely played. (Perahia, by the way, plays the first movement exactly as Beethoven wrote it, avoiding, in bar 318 and elsewhere, the high D which was not available on Beethoven’s pianos but which, from analogous passages of figuration earlier on, he would surely have used if he could.) So perhaps Pollini is better at projecting the serenity; I certainly prefer him for his broader, less excitable handling of the ‘storm’ in the first movement’s development. You may agree too that Perahia doesn’t match the rapt, interior quality of Kovacevich (Philips) in the slow movement of the C minor Concerto, who takes a full minute longer over it. 

I do miss Brendel in these works – his Philips set of the five Beethovens with the same conductor as Perahia has been deleted. But, for the time being, my enthusiasm for the new record is paramount. 

If you have already enjoyed this artist in Beethoven sonatas you will not be specially surprised, I dare say, at his excellence here; and, for me, Haitink and the Concertgebouw have turned the record into a feast. Stephen Plaistow (July 1986) 

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Till Fellner pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano

ECM

Till Fellner, always among the more quietly celebrated pianists, includes Alfred Brendel among his mentors and together with Kent Nagano and the Montreal SO gives us two of the most supremely satisfying performances of both these concertos on record. This is a dream partnership with soloist and conductor working hand-in-glove, and even when you conjure with so many glorious names in such core repertoire (from Schnabel to Lupu) you will rarely hear playing of such an enviable, unimpeded musical grace and fluency.

Fellner surely belongs among that elite who Charles Rosen so memorably defined as those who, while they appear to do nothing, achieve everything. His playing is subtly rather than ostentatiously coloured and inflected, and if others might be thought more vivid or personal, Fellner’s and Nagano’s ease and naturalness always allow Beethoven his own voice. Fellner’s still small voice of calm in the Fourth Concerto’s central Andante con moto is one among many glories, and if many of us are looking ahead to Paul Lewis’s forthcoming cycle of the complete concertos, and also to a possible recording by Maria João Pires, whose performances have been universally admired, even they will be hard pressed to equal let alone surpass Fellner’s Olympian mastery. Some biographical reminders and a total timing would have been helpful but balance and sound are pleasingly natural and this memorable issue is crowned with a short but intriguing essay by Paul Griffiths. Bryce Morrison (June 2010)

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Emil Gilels pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Leopold Ludwig

Warner Classics

This is one of the – perhaps the most – perfect accounts of the Fourth Concerto ever recorded. Poetry and virtuosity are held in perfect poise, with Ludwig and the Philharmonia providing a near-ideal accompaniment. The recording is also very fine, though be sure to gauge the levels correctly by first sampling one of the tuttis. If the volume is set too high at the start, you will miss the stealing magic of Gilels’s and the orchestra’s initial entries and you will be further discomfited by tape hiss that, with the disc played at a properly judged level, is more or less inaudible.

The recording of the Emperor Concerto is also pretty good, making one wonder what aberrations of LP technology led Roger Fiske and Trevor Harvey to get so angry about the mono and stereo originals when they first appeared in 1957-8. As to the performance, this is not quite on a par with that of the Fourth Concerto. Ludwig and the orchestra tend to follow Gilels rather than integrate with him in the way that Menges and the Philharmonia do on Solomon’s classic 1955 recording (EMI, 11/95). There are times, too, especially in the slow movement, when Gilels’s playing borders on the self-indulgent. (Do I hear Szell’s shade stirring and muttering, “Now you see my point”?) This is not, however, sufficient reason for overlooking this fine and important Testament reissue.

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Violin Concerto

Itzhak Perlman vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini 

Warner Classics

Perlman's first entry couId hardly be more deceptive, that ladder-like climb of spread octaves which many virtuosi (Anne-Sophie Mutter on DG for example) present commandingly, but which Perlman plays with such gentleness that he emerges almost imperceptibly from the orchestra. It is a measure of Perlman's artistry that an effect which could sound selfconsciously poetic or even weak at once establishes the soloist's command; for this is a spacious performance which uses a relatively measured tempo, steadily maintained, to create the strongest possible structure in a movement which in time at least (almost 25 minutes) is Beethoven's longest symphonic first movement. Where both Chung (Decca) and Mutter are above all lyrical and meditative, illuminatingly so, Perlman's is a more obviously virile purposeful reading with the orchestral tuttis closely co-ordinated - just as they are in the Krebbers version (Philips) with a soloist who at the time was also concertmaster of the orchestra. One might even relate the reading of that first movement to Giulini's spacious but concentrated reading of the Eroica Symphony with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra (DG, 5/79). It is striking that even in the Kreisler cadenza Perlman prefers to keep the feeling of a steady pulse, and the entry into the coda in its total purity and simplicity is even more affecting than the fine accounts in the other three versions.

Both there and in the slow movement Mutter and Chung adopt a more consciously expressive style, but there is no question at any point of Perlman sounding rigid, for within his steady pulse he 'magicks' phrase after phrase. The hushed third theme of the slow movement has an easeful serenity to set against the more tender, vulnerable emotions conveyed by Chung and Mutter. With them poetry is perhaps more important than drama, but Perlman - certainly poetic in his way, always noting the many key passages marked dolce - confirms the strength of his reading in his superbly sprung account of the finale, the tempo marginally faster than that of any of the others (markedly faster than Chung) but masterfully confident. With full, warm digital recording, there is no finer version available, combining as it does so many of the special qualities one finds in the Chung and Mutter versions on the one hand, and in the strong, incisive Krebbers on the other. Edward Greenfield (September 1981)

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Violin Concerto

Isabelle Faust vn Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

Harmonia Mundi

The Beethoven and Berg violin concertos aren’t commonly paired on disc. However, in this case it seems like an inspired piece of programme planning, with an account of the Berg that plumbs its depths of melancholy, setting off a radiant, life-affirming performance of the Beethoven.

Berg could be accused of giving too many instructions to his performers, of not allowing enough room for individual interpretation. He certainly presents them with plenty to think about; in the waltz-like second section of the concerto’s second movement, Isabelle Faust is required, within a few bars, to characterise her part as scherzando, wienerisch and rustico. She succeeds brilliantly; one feels, in this and other places, that such precision actually helps her to convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind this concerto dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’.

Faust’s stylish way with the waltz episodes brings a suggestion of gaiety that renders more poignant the effect of the dark, complex harmony – a bright memory rendered sad and bitter. In the second movement, after the fierce virtuosity she brings to the declamatory opening section, she chooses the alternative version of the canonic cadenza (suggested by the composer) where she is joined by a solo viola, rather than realising unaided the four-part counterpoint. This passage sounds truly beautiful, like an uneasy oasis of calm in the middle of turbulent conflict, and I’ve become convinced it’s the best way to hear the music.

Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart also take careful notice of the score’s myriad directions, and the effect is similarly to liberate the intensity and beauty of the music. After the harrowing climax at the end of the first part of the second movement, where the Bach chorale (whose melody is related to Berg’s 12-note row) makes its appearance, the effect of having the grieving voice of the solo violin answered by the clarinet choir more quietly, but also slightly faster, and so less weighed down, is perfectly realised – we immediately appreciate why Berg wrote it so.

Few recordings of the Berg have achieved this level of detailed commitment from soloist and orchestra. One that does so is Josef Suk’s, made in 1968 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel An∂erl, and they manage to stay closer to Berg’s metronome markings – some passages in Faust’s recording are on the slow side, though I can’t see that it spoils the performance in any way. And this new account enjoys more mellifluous recorded sound, with far superior definition.

Beethoven may not give as many directions as Berg, but from the very first bars the Orchestra Mozart’s woodwind choir show the same care over detail, the instruments perfectly balanced and with a commitment to bringing out the music’s soulful, expressive character. This sets the tone for the performance, Abbado encouraging his players to maximise the expressive quality of each theme, while keeping a firm hand on the unfolding of the larger design. He and Faust see eye to eye in wishing to preserve a proper Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement and not to be awed by the work’s reputation into presenting it as a grand, Olympian utterance with little vitality (as on the Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich recording). It’s not just a matter of tempo, either; to all the running passages in the first movement and finale, Isabelle Faust brings a spirited style that at moments becomes positively fiery. A notable example is her cadenza in the finale (track 5, 6'20"). Faust bases her cadenzas and lead-ins on those Beethoven wrote for his adaptation of the work as a piano concerto. This is often an uncomfortable option: Beethoven’s cadenzas (that in the first movement includes an important role for timpani) take the music in surprising directions – more extrovert and playful – and it’s quite difficult to arrange some passages idiomatically for the violin. However, by judicious omission, brilliant playing and sheer conviction, Faust finds a solution that’s both authentically Beethovenian and violinistically convincing.

The Larghetto’s initial theme is most sensitively shaped by the Orchestra Mozart strings and, at Faust’s entry, she is accompanied by especially beautiful solo clarinet and bassoon lines. In this movement, Faust finds a particularly wide range of tone colour, twice receding to the merest whisper and in several places practically omitting vibrato, relying for expression on changes in bow speed and pressure, so creating a powerful sense of concentration in the melodic line. It’s entirely characteristic of this performance that the sudden orchestral outburst at the end of the Larghetto, heralding the cadenza that leads to the finale, which so often seems inappropriately formal, here comes as a shocking surprise, a rude awakening from an exquisite dream.

In recent years, there have been several fine recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Faust’s performance has a grandeur that Christian Tetzlaff’s sweeter, more intimate account doesn’t attempt to match. Janine Jansen has the grandeur but doesn’t quite rival Faust’s expressive range or emotional intensity. Outstanding performances of both concertos, then; I’ll want to return to them often. Duncan Druce (March 2012)

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