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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven for All

  • 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, Op. 73
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Decca 4783515 3CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from Find it at JPC
Also available on DVD as EuroArts 2056778:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC
Also available on Blu-ray as EuroArts 2056774:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - JPC

Mr. Robert Cummings and I tend to review the same projects, but I'm not sure we've done it this way before. This is EuroArts DVD 2056778 in audio format, which he reviewed very favorably in 2008, but which did not appear on Decca until 2012 as part of the "Beethoven for All" (isn't he always?) saga. Since it was released so long ago, that naturally means I'm just getting to it now. Musically speaking, Warwick Thompson, who wrote the rather brief notes for this release, makes the claim that the pianist is still evolving and changing. That's a rather audacious claim in this music, which Barenboim has already recorded twice (three times, if you count his conducting for Rubinstein) complete in his lifetime. But it's the correct claim, because this third cycle is the finest he has given us so far, and I hope that this can stand as his final view on these pieces.

Unlike his symphony cycle from this same project – ponderous, tired, and ill-played – this set has a welcome sense of freshness. For me, Barenboim's first go-around with Klemperer is reasonably interesting from a pianistic standpoint but offers little from the podium. Barenboim's second try, a self-led cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, was much improved, but somewhat uncompetitive. This wasn't helped by the fact that both were on EMI, and the label never did pay much attention to the latter. This third attempt is the best of the lot, for a few simple reasons.

Firstly, the Staatskapelle Berlin (which also recorded Barenboim's first and superior cycle of the same composer's symphonies on Warner) roundly outclasses the New Philharmonia and – at least in this music – the Berlin Philharmonic. While not exactly modern period-practice, ensemble size feels right, and there is a welcome chamber-like interplay between sections. Try the "Emperor" first, which has all the pianist's storied technique with none of the previous blandness and lack of bite in the orchestral parts. At just over 40 minutes, the timing compares favorably with similarly conceived readings from Ashkenazy, and classic versions from Cliburn and Kempff. I also like the clarity of the opening scales, which aren't rushed for once (but without the delightful weirdness of Gould/Stokowski). The slow movement is somewhat less than rapturous as phrased here, but Barenboim's entrance still commands the respect that every great performance must. The concluding rondo is great fun.

Working backwards, the concertos #3 and #4 sound terrific. Having just seen this latter work live in concert, it's amazing how difficult this music actually is. I certainly don't recall the tuttis being so sharply etched and striking. Compare this to Barenboim's almost awkward first efforts with Klemperer, and this is one of the few times I will soundly recommend the older Barenboim over his younger self. The chamber-like immediacy of the Berlin forces contrasts markedly with the Philharmonic of the same city, and in this music the Staatskapelle is to be preferred. Barenboim seems more comfortable conducting while playing this time around, and in a work like the 4th, that pays off. I also have no problem agreeing with Mr. Cummings on the excellence of the Concerto #3, which indeed sounds superb in its opening movement and stays sounding that way.

The opening two concertos are taken very seriously indeed, and in none of his recordings has Barenboim ever really captured the lightness and wit of these pieces. But that's not what you expect from him as an artist, and generally these two works are not the main selling point of a complete set, anyways. In any event, the playing is terrific and the wind detail is distinguished. While the sound on the DVDs might very well have been as fine as Mr. Cummings suggests, the CDs are not up to par with the very best in this field. Still, if you own the DVD set, you'll probably want this too. And even if you don't, the overall package is worth having, even if you've heard these works over and over again.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman