BEETHOVEN Piano and Violin Concertos
If you fancy a set of the Beethoven piano concertos that’s suitable for listening to at a single sitting, then look no further. The ingredients are ideal for the job: abundant energy; bold, clear-sighted interpretation; brilliant though intelligently deployed pianism; poetic handling of the various slow movements; vital conducting and orchestral playing that fits the ‘chamber orchestra’ template like a glove. I loved it; and, while hardly tempted to bin my Arraus, Brendels, Kempffs, Serkins or Schnabels (to mention merely a handful of classic complete sets of the complete piano concertos), Stefan Vladar’s refresher course held me captive for the duration.
The First Concerto provides a convenient initial sampling point, with its well-paced, dynamically inflected opening tutti and the way Vladar, having conducted what we’ve heard thus far, announces himself (2'37") – crisply, elegantly and with confidence. Note the badinage with the orchestra, the suddenly drumming accompaniment at 3'40" and the gaiety of the closing Rondo.
Vladar finds more light and shade than do many of his rivals in the Second Concerto’s opening and his way with the first movement is abundantly playful. Again the closing Rondo, truly a molto allegro, serves as a celebratory finale. Had I to cite two of the slow movements that Vladar performs with especial sensitivity they would be the romantic hearts of the Third and Fifth (Emperor) concertos, the former at 2'28" where the music assumes an almost bel canto level of lyrical intensity. Again, note how Vladar faces his orchestra to cue some expressive interlinking passages. The Emperor’s Adagio is similarly poignant and with every note perfectly placed.
The sublime busyness of the Fourth Concerto’s first movement is kept fully up to speed, not unlike Serkin’s mono CBS recording (under Ormandy – nla). In the slow movement I would have welcomed rather more gravitas around the growling interjections that encourage the soloist’s humble pleading – Vladar keeps his strings rather too light and clipped – and when the piano trills that follow prompt a spiralling swirl of reaction, you should feel emotionally drained. Here you don’t.
The Triple Concerto with violinist Isabelle van Keulen and cellist Julian Steckel has the intimate, animated feel of a family affair about it – you hear so much. Then van Keulen goes solo in the Violin Concerto, using her own arrangement of the first-movement cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his piano version of the work. It’s a good performance, very good at times, intelligent, mobile, tonally bright and with excellent trills, and van Keulen makes that cadenza sound fairly convincing (not everyone does). She adds the two Romances, the Second of which sounds uncomfortably fast.
To be honest I’d treat this last CD as something of a bonus: Vladar’s conducting is again excellent but it’s his playing and conducting of the piano and Triple concertos that really makes the grade. The sound is very realistic, though be warned that the piano is very much upfront. An exceptional set.