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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Piano Concerto #3
  • Piano Concerto #5 "Emperor"
Christoph Eschenbach, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Hans Werner Henze
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Brilliant Classics 94602 78:27
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These performances have been released before on Brilliant in a box set bringing together this conductor/pianist's early output for Deutsche Grammophon. For those of us who simply want the concertos, this inexpensive disc is a welcome addition to our shelves, even if realistically neither interpretation displaces the great recorded versions of the work.

The third concerto is the better performance of the two, and benefits from Eschenbach's intelligent and straightforward viewpoint. It's a reminder of just how fine a pianist he was. Outer movements are played with panache, and the slow movement is lovingly shaped and very satisfying. While not perhaps the deepest or most powerful take on the work, it nonetheless impresses on account of the unforced virtuosity on display. Henze and the London Symphony accompany competently, with some interesting wind details nicely highlighted, but Eschenbach would probably rank higher critically speaking had he been given a stronger orchestral framework to play within. When you consider the great maestros that were working with the LSO at the time, Henze doesn't even come close. When he's not being somewhat faceless, he's pulling odd tempo shifts. It isn't terrible, but it does lessen the appeal somewhat.

The Emperor suffers from the opposite problem. Eschenbach picks and prods at the work, indulging in some strange pianistic choices and largely shattering the piece's sense of flow. The first two movements suffer most from this approach, with some insensitive playing in the largo especially. The third movement rondo is surprisingly good, though, and the then young pianist seems to be having more fun. Indeed, you can't help but think he doesn't like the concerto all that much, because he plays very well throughout, and was certainly capable of a less mannered view. Ozawa and the Boston Symphony provide excellent support. I've already mentioned on Classical Net that Ozawa is hardly my first choice in Beethoven, but he and the orchestra were in a particularly fruitful phase of their long partnership, and everything goes well here. Surely this surpasses his labored and dull later Beethoven on Telarc (with a labored and dull Rudolf Serkin in tow).

While not surpassing any of my favorite choices for either concerto, this fine budget offering easily holds your attention and is worth hearing. The sound is a plus too, as DG was producing excellent recordings in the 70's. Tempos are middle of the road, and there's nothing shocking or revolutionary here. It's just good, solid Beethoven. For fans of Eschenbach, Ozawa, or the BSO, this is self-recommending. For those who want to know what these works are all about, I can confidently say that you will enjoy this. It may not be among the classics, but kudos to Brilliant Classics for this warm testament to Eschenbach's unique gifts.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman