Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19; Piano Concerto in D major (arr. of Violin Concerto), Op. 61a; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 80*
Inon Barnatan (piano); London Voices*; Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Alan Gilbert
Pentatone PTC 5186 824 133:40 mins (2 discs)
It was Clementi, in his guise as a London music publisher, who commissioned Beethoven to transform his famous violin concerto into a piano concerto. The transcription has been much maligned, and it’s true that it’s often rather workmanlike; but there’s no shortage of imaginative touches, and the wild and wacky cadenzas (Beethoven left none for the violin version) have to be heard to be believed. The talented Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan finds much poetry in the piece, and only out and out purists are likely to worry about him supplying one or two notes right at the top of the keyboard which weren’t available to Beethoven in 1807 (though already by the time he wrote his cadenzas a couple of years later he was able to avail himself of the missing notes).
The Choral Fantasia is another work that sometimes gets a bad press, but more than just a dry-run for the last movement of the Ninth Symphony it’s a fascinating amalgam of improvisation, variations, concerto and cantata. The piece is very well handled here by Barnatan with London Voices and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Alan Gilbert.
There’s some fine playing in the two concertos, too, though there are moments when the Emperor could have done with greater grandeur: the double-octaves passage midway through the first movement, for instance, or the very end of the movement – the only instance known to me of an fff marking in Beethoven’s piano music. But Barnatan more than compensates with the expressiveness and poetry of his performance elsewhere.