Beethoven’s Piano Concertos – Aimard & Harnoncourt: An Opinion

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concertos:
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)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded live between 2000 and 2002 in the Stefaniensaal, Graz and * in the Musikverein, Vienna

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: June 2003
CD No: TELDEC 0927 47334-2
(3 CDs)

These are fine performances of the Beethoven concertos – with clear, open recording and attractive presentation.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard has impeccable credentials as a Boulez protégé and as a noted champion of contemporary music. He believes that interpretation is a matter of endless renewal.His approach to Beethoven’s concertos is born from a Gallic discrimination and delicacy, producing a knowing, self-aware lyricism in quieter passages and an ironic attitude to the more openly heroic facets of the concertos. These are post-modern interpretations – meant to disturb and provoke as well as to ravish.

At its best, this produces a filigree chamber texture (helped by the size of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe) that truly allows us to hear these pieces afresh – the end of development of No.4’s first movement, the singing line opening the Emperor’s ’Adagio’, or the central portion of No.2’s slow movement. Indeed, throughout No.2 and in the Finale to No.1 – played in reverse order, as composed, on the first CD – a degree of restraint allows the works’ dramatic structure to be appreciated all the more clearly.

The least convincing aspects are extreme agogic pauses and accents (such as in the opening to the Emperor, or the choppy chords in the slow movement’s central section) seem to be aiming for difference for its own sake. The middle movement of No.4 shows both – deeply felt, meditative playing finessed by Harnoncourt, but a degree of mannered self-indulgence that exaggerates contrast between solo and orchestral parts.Similarly, the Finale of No.5 is full of beautiful detail, but lacks consistency of tension and commitment as Aimard, several times, holds up the flow of the music to make his points.

There are many aspects of these performances that come down to taste – the consciously extreme tempo changes in the first movement of No.3. Others are deeply convincing, often more on second inspection than first – the equally conscious moderation of the same work’s rondo Finale, allowing the dramatic intensity to grow slowly over the movement, with poise and detail never lost.Even here, one is struck by how carefully Harnoncourt keeps a tight rein on the tempo in the central episode, before the fugato.

Indeed, the playing of the COE, and Harnoncourt’s conducting, are notable advantages to this set – listen to the orchestral tutti at the start of No.4, or the excellent dialogue between strings and piano throughout No.2. Harnoncourt is always alive to dramatic possibilities, his orchestra able to convey the best of authentic and modern. It is much to his credit that he so expertly harmonises (to use the word in its European Union sense) Aimard’s flights of fancy, and gives the set a very Classical unity and a real sense of working through artistic problems. Aimard discusses these aspects fully in a booklet essay.

It should also be said that Harnoncourt, referring to pianos contemporary with Beethoven, is responsible for the unusual, seemingly ’wrong’ note in the first movement of No.1. The note usually played, Harnoncourt realised, was simply too high to exist on the piano available to Beethoven – this observation might have been included in the notes.

It may be, just as there are differences between Anglo-Saxon empiricism and Gallic theory, between English common sense and French elegance, that there are differences in musical taste between listeners on either side of the Channel – and hard to reconcile. Aimard’s appeal is wide, and he already has claims to be a great pianist, but this is not intended as and will never be a canonical set of the Beethoven concertos. However, it certainly warrants hearing and, then, repeated listening – for there is much here to delight and to question.

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