No.1 in C, Op.15
No.2 in B flat, Op.19
No.3 in C minor, Op.37
No.4 in G, Op.58
No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded September & October 2007 in No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Reviewed by: Rian Evans
Reviewed: September 2008
CD No: EMI 2 06311 2 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 59 minutes
Confessions here, first as last. I have rarely been a fan of Evgeny Kissin’s playing but have long admired hugely the musicianship and integrity of Sir Colin Davis – so their collaboration in this recorded cycle of Beethoven piano concertos constitutes something of a challenge. I was pleasantly surprised: it made for fascinating listening. Some of Kissin’s playing on these discs is rather fine, expressive even, and, frankly, not always recognisable as the young bull-at-a-gate practitioner who’s succeeded in affronting the sensibilities of as many people as he has delighted.
One of the perennial fascinations of Beethoven’s five concertos is the way in which they vividly chart the composer’s progress from an approach palpably rooted in the music of Haydn and Mozart to implicitly Romantic tendencies while pushing the boundaries both of classical harmony and of concerto form.
It is the strength of Davis’s authority in this transitional territory as well as his naturally sympathetic accompaniment that makes these recordings so satisfying. Davis’s Beethoven has a characteristic clarity and nobility. He shapes phrases with a balance of loving attention to detail and an overall sense of momentum that is compelling. But it sounds perverse to be recommending a concerto cycle on the strength of its conductor rather than the soloist and, in fact, there is more than enough of Kissin here that is really quite persuasive.
In Piano Concerto No.1, Kissin delivers crisp playing and there is some nice reciprocity with the LSO wind-players, even if this sometimes sounds more careful than spontaneous. After a degree of restraint in the first two movements, there is a decidedly wilful playfulness about the finale. In the equivalent movement of the Second Concerto there is again bursting energy with accents mischievously underlined. So far, so good.
In the Third Concerto, Kissin’s precision works well within the quietly emotional tenor that Davis establishes at the outset and the first movement’s development section is passionately felt. The cadenza, however, typifies what I often found frustrating: Kissin’s ability to achieve poetic moments and then negating them with much harsher modes of attack. Similarly, the tenderness of the central Largo was countered by often-jarring sounds in the finale.
In the ‘Emperor’, too, in which the grandeur of the Allegro is imposing and Kissin answers the magical string-playing of the opening of the Adagio with an appropriately soothing tone, he reverts to a more mechanical articulation in passages which cede in importance to the orchestral lines. By the finale, while Beethoven’s rhythmic drive is paramount, Kissin’s accentuation is decidedly hard.
The Fourth Concerto offers the most consistently lyrical playing and the least irritatingly bombastic fortissimos. The rapport between Davis and Kissin is evident in the exchanges in the Andante con moto and the final melting cadence is one of those points where one would have gambled on it not being Kissin at the keyboard. The finale is suitably bustling and, although it is not without wince-making moments, sets the seal on the best performance of the five here.
Overall, I risk damning with faint praise: Kissin aficionados will buy the set anyway – but his detractors ought, for once, to give him the benefit of the doubt.