Howard Shelley plays Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra [Tasmin Little & Tim Hugh; Chandos]

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Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Piano Concerto in D, Op.61a [arranged by Beethoven from his Violin Concerto]
Piano Concerto in E flat, WoO 4 [Orchestration and accompaniment reconstructed and recreated by Howard Shelley]
Concerto for piano, violin and cello in C, Op.56
Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op.80
Rondo in B flat, WoO 6

Beethoven and Mozart: An Obsession? A talk by Howard Shelley

Tasmin Little (violin) & Tim Hugh (cello)

Chorus of Opera North

Orchestra of Opera North
Howard Shelley (piano)

Recorded September 2010 and June & July 2011 in Victoria Hall, Leeds Town Hall, England

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: November 2011
CHAN 10695 (4 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 17 minutes



When considering admirable recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos, two issues immediately spring to mind. In 1992 Chandos issued an excellent (and underrated) version with John Lill and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Walter Weller. The recording had a slightly forward piano and an orchestra recorded with a nice bloom to the strings but was slightly unclear in the brass and drum department. Strange then that Chandos’s latest recording of this repertoire, although more ‘present’, retains some of the same characteristics. I don’t object to Howard Shelley’s piano having been recorded so as to make it sound a little more immediate than it would in the concert hall for this is also the case with the other venerable set cited: the excellent Deutsche Grammophon version with Wilhelm Kempff, conducted by Ferdinand Leitner.

Shelley’s approach has a passing similarity to that of Kempff and I have no hesitation in referring to both pianists in discussing the interpretation of these works – in other words this Chandos set offers something special.

Even before the piano enters in the opening movement of Piano Concerto No.1, Shelley obtains great rhythmic thrust from the orchestra and the easy flow of the pianist’s initial melodic announcements at once foreshadows the symphonic nature of Shelley’s interpretations; he has a tight hold on tempo. There is a degree of shaping and sensitive rubato, but the progress of the music is paramount. Altogether this is a strong, masculine account, regular in tempo in the outer movements with a broad view taken of the Largo yet the rhythmic tension is not allowed to relax. Throughout this fully-scored work I was delighted to hear excellent woodwind detail and the finale is notable for its lightness of touch.

In No.2 do we perhaps have different microphone placement? The resonance is a little more marked and early-on one chord seems to bounce off the walls of the venue, although that splendidly clear woodwind detail is as evident as ever. In this work Shelley takes a very similar view to that of Lill. Typical of Shelley’s outlook however is a powerful drive throughout the faster sections whereas Lill sometimes indulges in a slight ‘lift’ before each new phrase – a subtle difference but significant.

Concerto No.3 starts as it means to go on – crisp chording and incisive contrasts of texture are evident from the outset – how refreshing to hear a pianist-conductor so greatly concerned with the orchestra: this is not mere accompaniment but an integral part of Shelley’s interpretation. One minor delight is the method of microphoning the piano – high notes to the left, low to the right and with slightly greater ‘stereo spread’ than normal. The many octave runs in the first movement benefit enormously from this. I must add that my slight reserve concerning the weightier instruments does not apply to the end of the first movement where the subtly graded timpani passage after the cadenza is balanced with care. In the slow movement Beethoven’s Largo is here broadly paced but Shelley does not mourn over it (I recall one famous pianist lingering to such an extent over the first note that a critic feared that the second note had been forgotten!). The finale flows calmly and charmingly – this minor-keyed concerto bow has a smile on its face, the clear blends are admirable and woodwind exchanges with the soloist are exemplary.

Much has been written about how the introductory piano phrase of the Fourth Concerto should be played. With Shelley it is with self-effacing simplicity and this is typical of his unhurried, gracious approach to the movement – yet again I was impressed by the clarity of the woodwind figuration. There is no overstatement of the dramatic exchanges between piano and orchestra in the slow movement and the close is beautifully hushed with a very well judged attacca into the finale. There is perhaps some orchestral understatement and those three surprising, and very bold descending horn notes near the end come out as merely a part of the progress of the music and do not cause surprise as can be the case.

The concertos are spread variously across the four discs but I found it useful to listen to them in numerical order. On reaching the ‘Emperor’ Concerto it seemed particularly worthwhile because the grandeur of the work and Shelley’s extra release of power in the stronger passages make it a suitable culmination. There is perhaps a touch less orchestral clarity in this work and a little more freedom of tempo when the soloist phrases the gentler moments – particularly in the first movement. The slow movement is magically gentle – it seems to confirm that Shelley is touched by the grace of the work: in this dramatic reading it is his softness of touch that stays in the memory. There is strength in the finale – but throughout the movement the timpanist gives the impression of slightly underplaying and I am not convinced that this matches Shelley’s bold view of the music and I do wish that the extraordinary coda could have featured Beethoven’s daring quiet drum solo more positively.

It is useful to have the 13-year-old Beethoven’s E flat Piano Concerto. It exists only as a piano score with instrumental indications and many have orchestrated it. There is a very decent existing recorded version by Ronald Brautigam but Shelley takes an intelligent approach and his use of bassoon in the orchestration (which does not seem to present in other recordings that I have heard) is convincing and very typical of the period. The slow movement is rather simple in melody but Shelley makes it interesting: Larghetto is the marking and he honours it. (There is a terrifyingly slow recorded version by Grigorios Zamparas that takes twice the length of Shelley’s seven-minute version.) On the whole the work merits the occasional hearing although it has to recover from the very trite opening theme – presumably Beethoven suggested horns should play it – but somehow those instruments seem to make the melody particularly plodding. For all that, there are hints of true Beethoven here and there and in the finale the jolly melody resembles the simple examples of tunefulness that appear in the finales of Mozart’s piano concertos.

The other peripheral work – numbered 6 in the ‘without opus’ list – is a jolly Rondo, this time fully scored by Beethoven. It is thought to have been intended as a finale to Concerto No.2 although the three-minute slow central section gives reason to take that suggestion with caution; flying scales, delicate ornaments, dainty trills – they all demand considerable skill which here is amply provided.

In the Triple Concerto decent rounded sound supports well-balanced soloists and for once the cello is not regarded as the poor relation to its violin and piano companions. The orchestra is a bit general in sound and this time woodwind clarity is less in evidence. Nevertheless, lightness of touch propels Beethoven’s optimistic themes with conviction. Because of its brevity the romantic central Largo responds to the expressive and unhurried treatment that it is given. (I have never been able to explain why the opening part of that movement brings Sibelius to mind every time I hear it!) Again we have an excellent example of Shelley’s sensitivity when moving from the central movement to the finale; this is as convincing as the similar examples in Concertos 4 and 5.

Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Violin Concerto giving the solo part to the piano has attracted only limited attention yet I see no reason why it should not be more popular and it does have the advantage of Beethoven’s long and adventurous cadenza in which the piano is joined by timpani, a bonus he did not provide one for the original work. In relation to Olli Mustonen’s version, I suggested that the use of piano caused the melodic line not to flow – and because of Mustonen’s emphatic playing I felt that this element was underlined. Shelley’s cooler approach is rather more comforting; there is an excellent sense of line and the orchestra plays with a decent amount of power; really excellent, timpani far more naturally balanced. I don’t think the flourish-laden cadenza at the end of the slow movement works particularly well though; the subtle link into the finale in the violin version is much superior. Nevertheless, this is a considerable composition, and although some listeners may be troubled by the piano’s decorations in the finale and have difficulty with the novelty of this instrument playing famous string melodies, the work is worthy of being listened to on its own terms.

The relatively unloved Choral Fantasia is given with conviction – it is surely not easy to direct both a chorus and an orchestra while playing a demanding piano part, so this is something of a triumph. The work commences with an extensive piano cadenza which is played superbly – most expressive and a true prelude to the ensuing orchestral drama. The ear is always aware that something important is about to occur. The concertos featured Shelley coolly in charge, urging the music forward with a light yet positive touch and that same thrust is evident in his sparkling playing in the Fantasia; there is also clear evidence of his ability to conduct masterfully, stressing the music’s increasing power as it progresses. I like the crispness of the chording, and the long-delayed choral entry (at 14’45”) represents an exciting change of texture. The widely spaced setting of the voices is effective and the singers’ joyfulness is excitingly conveyed. This is one of the most enjoyable readings of this piece that I have encountered since I heard the wild fury of a performance given years ago under Pablo Casals.

Finally it would be a shame to overlook Howard Shelley’s 13-minute dissertation which analyses the link between Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto (No.24; K491) and Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in the same key. Musical examples are given and the whole theory is put over with enormous conviction – true, it is an academic explanation but well within the grasp of any music-lover.

This set is a fine showcase for the multiple talents of Howard Shelley with Orchestra of Opera North giving greatly skilled performances led by an artist with whom the players obviously have great rapport. These are top-flight performances.

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