BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 4 (Vogt)
Lars Vogt would seem to have kept the best until last in this series of Beethoven concerto recordings with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. For here, surely, are the finest of the concertos, more at ease with themselves than the structurally inhibited First and Third concertos, more concerto-like than the mighty Emperor, whose creation post-dates Beethoven’s life as a performing virtuoso. What we experience in the Second and Fourth concertos is Beethoven the improvising virtuoso working hand-in-glove with his alter ego, Beethoven the visionary and seer; and it’s this very conjunction which Vogt and his fellow musicians explore in what are as imaginatively alert realisations of the two concertos as I have heard in many a long year.
The playboy roisterings of the 25-year-old’s B flat Concerto (No 2) have often caused the work to be underestimated; yet one need only consider such things as the recitative con gran espressione 18 bars from the slow movement’s end to realise that this is no idle jest. Vogt has one previous recording of the concerto to his name, made with Rattle and the CBSO in 1995. Inspiriting as that was, this newer version has about it a lightness of touch and improvisatory grace – a sense of the music being caught expeditiously on the wing – that gives it a decisive edge over the Birmingham recording.
That interaction of seer and improvising virtuoso is even more necessary if the great G major Concerto is to mesmerise as it should. Here again Vogt and his musicians are in prime form in a performance that is sharp-witted and endlessly beguiling, albeit platinum-tipped where the need arises. Pianistically, Vogt’s playing looks back via Glenn Gould (his magical but often infuriatingly mannered 1961 New York recording with Leonard Bernstein) to Artur Schnabel, whose playing of the first of Beethoven’s two first-movement cadenzas has exactly the kind of improvisatory skill that Gould’s has and Vogt’s too.
Though Vogt has all the resources of a modern Steinway at his command, and isn’t afraid to use them, there is a filigree quality to the playing that is subtly different from the ‘classic’ pianism of such revered interpreters of the concerto as Solomon or Emil Gilels, where every note is finely centred, even as the gradations of tone rise and fall. (‘Like strings of pearls’, as our grandparents used to say.) Vogt deploys a rather more various touch, just as he and his players are not afraid to slow the pulse or elasticate a phrase in moments of visionary wonder.
I confess that when I first heard the performance I thought ‘this will never do’: for repeated hearings, that is. Yet the more I have returned, the more I have wondered. Even the deft arpeggiation of the concerto’s opening chord – a no-no in any other context – now seems apt.
It’s perhaps no coincidence, given that Vogt is currently Music Director the Royal Northern Sinfonia, that the rapport between the soloist and this highly accomplished band of musicians is everything it should be, and more. These are marvellous performances, and the recordings, derived from live performances at Sage Gateshead, serve them well.