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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Piano Concerto #1 in C major, Op. 15
  • Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19
  • Piano Concerto #3 in C minor, Op. 37
  • Piano Concerto #4 in G Major, Op. 58
  • Piano Concerto #5 in E Flat Major "Emperor", Op. 73
  • Concerto for Piano, Violin & Cello in C Major, Op. 56 *
Mari Kodama, piano
* Kolja Blacher, violin
* Johannes Moser, cello
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Berlin Classics 0300597BC 3CDs 67:40+70:07+73:18
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Mari Kodama's way with Beethoven is very tasteful, very elegant and mostly straightforward, letting the works speak for themselves and thus not imposing any personal quirks on the music. It's a self-effacing approach to be sure, with neither the extreme nor the bland creeping into her interpretations. True, there are a few moments when Kodama can tilt toward modesty and understatement: when the piano reenters following the orchestral exposition in the Fourth's first movement, notice how she holds back a bit, choosing elegance over heft, nuance over dynamism. Yet, that's hardly a flaw, as she makes an excellent case for her approach with well-judged dynamics and sensitive phrasing. Moreover, it's not exactly a predominant trait, as she can also press forward assertively: her cadenza comes on with plenty of power and thrust at the outset, precisely the moment where a more potent approach is needed to achieve the greatest dramatic effect. Her finale too is vigorous and joyful, with a real sense of drive and energy. And this generally pretty balanced approach spills over into the other concertos in the set.

Kodama's Fifth is rather a centrist performance, both in phrasing and tempo selection. As I pointed out in my review of Leif Ove Andsnes' Beethoven Fifth Concerto last year (Sony 8843-05886-2), the first movement of this concerto, for some strange reason, fits into the range of 20:04 to 20:55 in almost every recording I've encountered. Of the eighteen recordings of this concerto in my collection, seventeen fall into that rather narrow range. Kodama's timing is 20:43! Her first movement is brilliantly played, again with a balance of both elegance and muscle, though I think the orchestral playing may be slightly more assertive, and weightier too, especially in the robust brass sound. Kodama turns out more subtlety and nuance than in most performances and never comes across as calculating or artificial. Her second movement Adagio sounds more vital than is usual in her slightly brisker pacing, and her finale is vigorous and joyful, again with just the right mixture of refinement and brawn.

For the earlier concertos Kodama lightens her approach very slightly, which is quite appropriate. Still, there is plenty of power where needed. The First comes across with both effervescence and subtlety and features an especially sparkling finale, though here both the pianist and orchestra take on a more muscular approach which points up the composer's mischievous humor. The Second (which actually predates the First) begins energetically in the orchestra and remains vital and spirited throughout. The outer panels are brimming with youthfulness and joy. This performance by pianist and orchestra may well be the best in the set. Kodama and Nagano even make a good case for the second movement, probably the least effective movement in the five Beethoven piano concertos. The Third Concerto gets a fine performance as well, with the darker elements in the first movement sounding more stormy and agitated than dire or tragic. Kodama's take on the finale is especially impressive in its manner of catching the shifting moods of the music, moving so naturally from the bouncy but serious character of the main theme onto the joyous and playful music that follows and interweaves. The Triple Concerto gets a fine performance from the three soloists and the orchestra as well. This is not necessarily top-drawer Beethoven but Kodama and company certainly make a compelling case for the work.

By the way, Nagano leads the proceedings throughout with a fine sense for Beethoven's epic character, his humor and his great vitality. He draws out all sorts of meaningful but often hidden detail in the score's textures and obtains a wide range of dynamics from the orchestra, always applying them with intelligence and taste. His accompaniment is as brilliant and alert as I've ever heard in any set of the Beethoven concertos. The Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin plays with accuracy and commitment in all works, rivaling that other better known Berlin band for sheer spirit and color. Despite three different Berlin recording locations (Teldex Studio, Siemensvilla, Jesus Christus Kirche), the sound reproduction by Berlin Classics is fairly consistent in its clarity and well balanced character. So, here is another fine set of the Beethoven piano concertos to make the catalog even more crowded. Excellent cycles are to be had from the aforementioned Andsnes (#1 & 3 on Sony 88725-42058-2), (#2 & 4 on Sony 88883-70548-2), (#5 & Choral Fantasy – link already given above), Barenboim (EuroArts DVD 2056778), Buchbinder (Unitel Classica/Cmajor Blu-ray 708904), Brendel (three times), Schnabel, Perahia, and others. This one by Kodama and Nagano (her husband, by the way) is good enough to serve as a stand-alone set of the Beethoven piano concertos, but for the more fussy listener the cycles by Perahia, Brendel (with Sir Simon Rattle), Buchbinder and Andsnes may have a slim edge. Still, I can highly recommend this set as one of the very best among recent issues.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings