Aimard/Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-3

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 21 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerUndaunted by the prospect of running out of steam or the audience facing sensory overload from three Beethoven piano concertos, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Chamber Orchestra of Europe did everything to disprove the theory that these types of programmes can’t work. In fact, I’ll bet there were many in the audience who could have happily sat through all five of them.

It wasn’t that Aimard and COE did anything particularly new or radical. What they gave us though were three of the freshest, most vital and best-played performances of these works that you are likely to hear, meticulous in preparation with soloist and orchestra so at one in their musical intent.

The opening of the Second Concerto (written before the First but published after) set the benchmark for the evening. Aimard set swift tempos in the outer movements, the COE sounding beautifully alert and together with playing of poise and refinement that was simply a joy. Aimard’s playing similarly reflected happiness, drawing clear musical lines and expressing in the finale the ardent young Beethoven emerging from the influences of Mozart and Haydn and beginning to impose his own personality. Aimard’s piano was of particular interest, the lid having being removed and replaced with what looked like a series of clear plastic ‘shutters’ which gave the instrument a clearer, lighter, more crystalline quality. The Adagio, the first of three beautifully poetic slow movements felt a trifle rushed at times, but this was the only minor blot.

The First Concerto carried on from where the Second left off – vital, urgent playing in the opening movement. Again Aimard and the COE were spot-on in portraying the freshness and vitality of these works while hinting at the heavier, symphonic Beethoven that was to emerge later. Aimard’s chose the shortest of the three cadenzas Beethoven wrote for this movement – a bit of shame! A ravishing slow movement, the best of the three, followed. This was lyrical, poetic playing from all concerned, the music seemingly suspended in time, yet there was always a sense of forward momentum which prevented the music from feeling bogged down. There was also some particularly beautiful playing from clarinettist Martin Spangenberg. The finale was the only relative disappointment; rather fast, Aimard’s playing a little forced. There was also some unwanted fierceness in the tuttis, which somewhat diluted the music’s playfulness.

No such issues with the Third Concerto in which Aimard perfectly captured the ‘new’ Beethoven, a more dramatic and turbulent personality and one who was now heading for a crisis. The first movement was full of such drama, a dynamic, compulsive reading; the build-up to the long cadenza was tumultuous, the hushed bars leading away from it full of tension and the coda was quite thrilling. The Largo was meltingly poetic, full of concentration and delicately shaped, the finale full of dramatic intent, free-flowing melodic lines and superbly judged momentum, Aimard’s still-fresh playing never resorting to bombast or affectation and completing a simply wonderful evening.

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