Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1/Piano Concerto No.3 [DVD]

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Fryderyk Chopin Institute


Piano Concerto No. 1
Film: The Breath of the Orchestra
Martha Argerich (piano); Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
Fryderyk Chopin Institute NIFC DVD-004   92 mins

Piano Concerto No. 3
Film: The Breath of the Orchestra
Maria João Pires (piano); Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
Fryderyk Chopin Institute  NIFC DVD-005   86 mins

Their ‘first recordings on a period piano’, says the billing. Maybe so. But whose period? Built fully a generation after Beethoven’s death, and a whopping half century after the C major First Concerto’s completion, the instrument in question (Érard, 1849) is closer to the modern, iron-frame grand than to anything Beethoven would have known. That said, neither of these two great pianists seems wholly at ease with it. Particularly in the opening movement of the First Concerto, Martha Argerich in particular sacrifices much of her usual tonal finesse, buoyant phrasing and elegant articulation, often sounding downright heavy-handed. Nor does the equally eloquent Maria João Pires escape a certain unaccustomed squareness.

The accompanying documentary on both DVDs traces this great orchestra’s history, identifying its artistic ethos and characteristics. What gives it its particular flavour, however, is the manifest happiness and fulfilment of the players. As founder-conductor Frans Brüggen observes, ‘We’re not just colleagues, but friends.’ They’re also, to paraphrase Schumann, ‘a republic of equals’: from the start, to the end of his life last year, Brüggen received exactly the same pay as his players.

Students of conducting may be fascinated by his idiosyncratically minimalist approach to direction, which made the notoriously approximate Furtwängler look like a martinet. Like Furtwängler, he seems to have communicated his intentions very largely through the sheer, almost mystical power of his personality. Repeatedly here, his players describe him as a genius; a magician. They trusted him utterly, and he reciprocated, leaving them largely to their own devices, like a first-class chamber group. Great wind-player that he was, his highest technical priority was to communicate the breathing necessary for optimum phrasing. This applied equally to strings, brass and percussion (indeed his own communicative exhalations, and inhalations, are audible in many of his recordings). Appropriately, the filming is straightforward and undistracting, allowing the inspiring content, and the personnel, to speak for themselves.


Jeremy Siepmann