Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 5 (Emperor)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Arte Nova; Satirino
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 5 (Emperor)
PERFORMER: Yefim Bronfman (piano); Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra/David Zinman; Camerata Ireland/Barry Douglas (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 82876 82587 2; SR 063
Barry Douglas’s Emperor Concerto is highly impressive from every angle. The opening solo cadenzas are scintillating, but he never loses sight of their role in the larger scheme of things. Instead they majestically prepare the way for the following Allegro, which lives up fully to Beethoven’s marking con brio – ‘with fire’. For all that, Douglas’s playing can also be delicate and sensuously beautiful: this is the kind of performance that brings out the innovatory beauty of Beethoven’s piano writing as much as the grit and rhythmic drive, and not just in the slow movement. His decision to take this Largo at a pulse directly related to that of the first movement is very interesting: somehow it emphasizes both the striking key change and the effect of opening a door on a new expressive world.

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In the First Concerto, it is DavidZinman who has the edge in the exciting, sharply featured orchestral introduction, and Yefim Bronfman has some striking new angles on familiar textures or turns of phrase. Put any short sample of Bronfman’s playing beside that of Douglas, and you’d probably find the former more ear catching. But although he may not strike quite as many sparks from the notes, Douglas has by far the stronger sense of the music’s progress as a whole, whereas in quantity some of Bronfman’s ‘insights’ begin to sound more like mannerism. In general his performances are as clear a case as any of the wood being obscured by the trees. And is it really necessary to play so much of the music ‘on points’, as they say in dance classes? The impact of Bronfman’s incisive staccatos is only too well caught by the recording – not a version to play if you’re suffering the effects of a hangover.

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If Douglas’s Emperor hasn’t quite edged out my stereo-era favourite – Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (recorded in 1961 but sounding remarkably fresh and clear) – I could happily live with his version. But in Nos. 1 & 2 it’s hard to dislodge fortepianist Robert Levin’s breathtaking presentation of these concertos as the work of a young composer excitedly discovering his own voice – something I felt that Zinman and Bronfman were striving for too, but only partly achieving. Still, the range of colour and expression, the rhythmic vitality and delight in surprise make the Douglas version of the First Concerto very repeatable. The Satirino recordings are excellent too. Stephen Johnson