Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 5

Douglas and Bronfman in a Beethoven play-off, and there's a clear winner

Author: 
Rob Cowan
Beethoven Piano concertos 1 & 5, Barry DouglasBeethoven Piano concertos 1 & 5, Barry Douglas
Beethoven Piano Concertos 1 & 2, BronfmanBeethoven Piano Concertos 1 & 2, Bronfman

BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 5

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5, 'Emperor'
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2

Playing these two versions of the First Concerto's opening movement one after the other is a telling exercise in comparative listening. Tempo-wise, there's little in it (the different first-movement timings reflect Barry Douglas's choice of the shortest of three Beethoven cadenzas), but in other respects, they're worlds apart.

Douglas's Camerata Ireland provide a strong opening pronouncement, imposing in its own terms but with little in the way of subtle shading. By contrast, Zinman's more attenuated Zürich Tonhalle, although equally broad, come across as more elegant and keenly inflected. Douglas's playing has a romantic, freewheeling feel to it, even from his initial entry where the first chord is expressively desynchronised. There are some marked variations in tempo, too - for example at around 7'08" into the first movement where, after the big central tutti and a crucial key-change, the soloist returns, in this case at a slower tempo and with generous rubato.

Beam up Bronfman at the same point (7'05") and although the musical gestures are similar - Bronfman slows his entrance just a smidgen - his straighter option leaves the stronger musical impression. With Douglas, the principal contrast is between flexible, colour-conscious solo playing - at its best in softer passages - and the orchestra's obdurate tread, except in the finale, which is actually a few seconds swifter than Bronfman's.

The Zürich performance of the First Concerto is beautifully articulated. True, there are also moments of grandeur (the assertive return to the opening at 9'16") 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, Douglas and his band seem a trifle breathless. Bronfman and the Tonhalle provide a far clearer, shapelier aural picture.

As to couplings, Douglas's Emperor shares with his First Concerto a pleasing warmth and affability: the first movement is well paced, the Adagio nicely “sung”, the finale at times a trifle laboured. I would call it an enjoyable, communicative reading though not one I feel especially tempted to return to. Bronfman's B flat Concerto 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 - in fact I don't think I've ever heard Bronfman play better

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