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
Recorded live between 2000 and 2002 in the Stefaniensaal, Graz and * in the Musikverein, Vienna
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: June 2003
CD No: TELDEC 0927 47334-2
This new cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – just as with EMI’s luxury set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies with Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic – raises interesting (if not uncommon) questions about the need to make further recordings of standard repertoire.
I come from a standpoint that Aimard’s set is my ninth of the piano concertos (only three of which include the Choral Fantasia) and Rattle’s my thirteenth of the symphonies. That’s not to mention isolated accounts of any one concerto or symphony.
Why the abstruse facts about my record collection? Well, in effect, they are in defiance of the whole nature of the single definitive recording and the prevalent nature of the ’Building a Library’ mentality – one best recording. Plurality is the name of the game – the amount of (sometimes quite wildly) different, yet satisfying, renditions of a particular opus on CD (or in the concert hall) are proof the music’s worth.
If it were about finding one’s definitive performance, then I would have given up long ago. It’s about rediscovering music afresh every time I hear it – realising that it still lives and breaths even though it may be quite different to the last time I heard it. Interpretation is something to recognise, assimilate and cherish. That’s not to say, of course, that every rendition is satisfying, yet it is constantly amazing the variety that notes on a page can yield – all of which can claim equal veracity to the composer’s printed (if not manuscript) intentions – in balance, pitch, and the use of vibrato, which has been the most overtly recognisable preoccupation of thirty years of historically-informed performance.
Music is dead if we refuse to acknowledge its mercurial quality. Simply playing the same recording over and over again will distance you from the work – familiarity breeds contempt. So to Aimard and Harnoncourt – scourges of 19th- and 20th-century accretions – and their eager conspirators, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Much has been made – indeed, starting in the accompanying booklet – of the potentially ’odd-couple’ nature of this conductor and soloist, but the electricity that their common quest in search of the soul of Beethoven comes over in vibrant form. For those that worry over whether or not this set is a definitive article, I refer to my comments above. Banishing the ’better’ and ’best’ notions of a ’first recommendation’ I can only say try this invigorating and enlightening set. Listen and enjoy its committed music making. You may be surprised by the distinctly French sensibilities that Aimard teases out of the music (although he is surely not the first to uncover impressionistic lines, especially in the slow movements), or the pungent attack Harnoncourt encourages from his still-young if long-time collaborators: in those surprises lie new windows on the works. This is music-making that lives and breaths, not doubt enhanced by the fact that the recordings are live.
I found the first two concertos (No.2 first, it being the first composed, just published second) the most arresting, with the Third, recorded first, to be more hesitant in its approach – but I was inspired afresh by the works themselves. The music wins through with soloist and conductor finding inspiration in each other. Despite what might have seemed like chasm-like differences between the French contemporary-music expert and the Berlin-born Viennese maestro with over fifty years in the business, their inquiring minds have resulted in brittle, lithe and infectious performances that bring Beethoven to life.
I suspect that if Aimard and Harnoncourt re-embarked on the project again, the results would be different – perhaps not radically so, but their ideas would have moved on. The very nature of recording means that something is caught for time immemorial, trapped like a fly in amber. But one shouldn’t need just one performance. Aimard and Harnoncourt’s are a lovingly crafted guide, well worth its ’three for two’ cost – but keep seeking out this music; this is what keeps it alive.
Ultimately, I don’t think you can fail with this set. The mixture of Gallic subtlety, incisive attack, attractive, natural orchestral sound and balances and a common sense of purpose are laudable and convincing.
One final, flippant comment, which should neither deter nor encourage purchase. The booklet photographs follow those of Brendel and Rattle’s VPO set on Philips, with posed conductor/soloist shots in various positions, only one of which on the new set is at the piano (scoring over Philips which has no shot of Brendel at the piano). The Teldec team (thankfully) opts against putting a picture of the back of the duo’s heads on the reverse of the CD case – a curious case of Germanic humour which wears quickly thin! However, the airport (or perhaps hotel) lounge-style interiors where Aimard and Harnoncourt are pictured are also pretty bizarre – the one of them sitting beside each other, their hands clasped in front of each – Harnoncourt with his eyes closed, as if close physically but far away mentally – seems to go against the collaborative nature of the music-making.
Best just to listen to the music they make!