BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 5
When Lars Vogt’s recordings of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos with Simon Rattle and the CBSO were released in 1997, I thought them among the finest accounts of the works I had encountered. There was the hope that a complete cycle might follow but that same year Rattle began recording the concertos with Brendel and the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips, 5/99). A curate’s egg of a cycle, it was Brendel’s fourth. How much more productive it would have been to complete the Vogt which (ironically) promised to match the freshness of address of Brendel’s own first cycle for Vox in the 1960s.
Such was Vogt’s near-perfect mix of playfulness and fantasy, memorably accompanied by Rattle, my 1997 comparisons for the First Concerto included some of the work’s most accomplished exponents: Solomon and Gilels, Brendel and Gould. Happily, the newer performance, which Vogt directs from the keyboard, is every bit as good. If the long lead to the first-movement recapitulation is not quite as magical here as in the earlier performance, the shaping of the great third cadenza is more assured and the finale has an added spaciousness and weight that takes nothing from the performance’s energy and wit. As for the Royal Northern Sinfonia, they have all the responsiveness of a chamber-music ensemble, married to a range and depth of sonority which you might expect from a rather larger ensemble.
With such skills in place, it would be reasonable to expect a half-decent performance of the mighty Emperor Concerto. Vogt himself rarely disappoints. Yet the age-old problem persists: is it possible to realise the Emperor’s many-sided splendour without a conductor on hand to help shape and propel the drama? The third movement is a particular problem, not only because it is tricky to play – it’s astonishing how even some of the most accomplished pianists on record fudge and finesse their way through the notes – but because it’s difficult to deal with the solo role while extracting from the orchestra that mood of heroic optimism the music evidently requires. The young Zubin Mehta did it for Brendel, Klemperer for Barenboim, Böhm for Pollini. With Vogt’s musicians appearing to be following the pianist rather than acting as an equal partner, the movement tends to lose shape as the music evolves.
That proviso aside, this is a distinguished start to a long-overdue cycle. The Ondine recording has admirable clarity and balance, though I was surprised by the glitch at 2'12" in the Largo of the First Concerto, something which was present on the finished pressings as well as on the test-pressing I was originally sent.