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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Complete Fortepiano Concertos

  • Concerto for Piano #1 in C Major, Op. 15
  • Concerto for Piano #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19
  • Concerto for Piano #3 in C minor, Op. 37
  • Concerto for Piano #4 in G Major, Op. 58
  • Concerto for Piano #5 in E Flat Major "Emperor", Op. 73
  • Concerto for Piano in D Major, Op. 61a (from Violin Concerto)
Arthur Schoonderwoerd, fortepiano
Ensemble Cristofori/Arthur Schoonderwoerd
Alpha Black Box 820 3CDs
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We've all seen Beethoven on period instruments before. We've seen him on the pianoforte, too. But with only one to two players to a part? Not nearly as often. This set is nothing short of a revelation, gathering these fascinating performances from 2005-2008 together for the very first time. ArkivMusic only lists the first two concertos as being available individually, so grab this box right now.

If you've ever wondered what these pieces would sound like in a chamber setting, this is possibly your best chance. Arthur Schoonderwoerd has assigned one string player to each orchestral voice (and in the Concertos #4 and #5, two) to create an amazing clarity of texture. He's always conscious of the original scorings, willing to increase or decrease the number of players based on what the music requires. He also chooses specific fortepianos for each work's unique personality, and the arguments he makes in his liner notes for all these decisions are well-written and generally compelling. The period-instrument ensemble Cristofori is quite good, even though even these drastically reduced numbers can occasionally overpower the dynamically limited fortepiano.

Mind you, clarity isn't everything in Beethoven, and certain moments that are breathtaking with full orchestra impress less in a chamber setting. Also, the timbre of both the solo instruments and the strings in particular take some getting used to if you haven't heard Robert Levin on Archiv, for example. Once the ear adjusts – and mine did reasonably well – the wealth of details are rewarding to say the least. This applies not least to the piano reconstruction of the composers' Violin Concerto in D, a supremely lazy effort on Beethoven's part to respond to a commission. Recently, it's been more popular, and this present recording gives it genuine identity. Not only do the reduced instrumentals successfully highlight the genius of the original work, but Schoonderwoerd seems to actually believe in the piece as adjusted. His chosen instrument for the work has a bright, clean sound, possibly paying tribute to the original violin completion. I like it!

For the most part, Schoonderwoerd plays and conducts with great spirit and with equal respect his orchestra and for the music at hand. Occasionally, (the Concerto #4), his phrasing draws attention to himself and not the score, especially in that concerto's outer movements. Conversely, the slow movement in the same work is razor-sharp and totally engrossing. The Emperor is as grand as it can get in this particular scoring, and if the slow movement here comes off as a little rushed, the overall accomplishment satisfies. The first three concertos are all simply dynamite. It's a shame that the Concerto #3 has such a measured Rondo, because the rest of the work is amazingly receptive to the approach used here. Actually, even if it's a little slow, even the final movement has an immediacy and explosiveness that should please many. The first two concertos are similarly wonderful.

There are unique touches everywhere; in the late concertos, Schoonderwoerd plays even during the tutti sections (aforementioned Robert Levin does the same, even when with modern orchestras) because there is evidence that the scores contain a basso continuo part! Whether you agree with all, or perhaps even any of the decisions made here, listeners who are open to new ideas and sounds need to hear these performances. Unlike the same label's box of Bach Lutheran Masses, liner notes are included and the "complete" booklet may still be found online. A great deal, nicely packaged, and beautifully recorded. A truly eye-opening look at Beethoven.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman