Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5; Bagatelles

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5; Bagatelles
PERFORMER: John Lill (piano); CBSO/Walter Weller
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9084/86 DDD
This is Walter Weller’s second big Beethoven project with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for Chandos. Their recording of the symphonies received much praise when it was released four years ago, and the same virtues are on display here: beautifully blended sound, cultivated string playing and emphasis on smooth, legato lines.

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For the concertos they are joined by the experienced Beethoven player John Lill, who also never puts a foot (hand?) wrong technically. In fact sometimes Lill seems to prize accuracy above all else. In the playful finales of Nos. 1 and 2, for example, all the notes are there and clearly audible, but there’s little sense of fun, let alone danger. Both Lill and Weller tend to understate the sforzandi, especially the quirkier ones which are so important to exciting Beethoven playing.

Their approach to outer movements, in particular, is rather too deliberate and even. It is not just a question of speed (though the first movement of No. 4 is on the slow side), but of phrasing and articulation. Too much music which ought to be lively and energetic ends up sounding merely worthy and ponderous.

However, Lill’s straight-forwardness can bring dividends in slow movements. The Largo of No. 1 is especially fine, with good clarinet solos. The serene slow movement of the Emperor is also well done, if perhaps a bit literal. Other pianists produce a more singing tone, but Lill’s lack of affectation will certainly appeal to some listeners.

The recording is fairly resonant, as always with Chandos, and this suits the soft-focus performances. The balance between soloist and orchestra is good (although it is more helpful to the violins than to the woodwind or lower strings), and the piano sound is clean, if rather bright at the top of the range. Highly generous fillers come in the form of three sets of Bagatelles, and the booklet contains an interesting note by Richard Osborne, plus a wrongly attributed picture of Beethoven’s autograph score (which is from No. 1, not No. 2 as stated).

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There’s much to enjoy then, but the lack of a strong interpretative personality means I can’t really place this set too high on a merit table for these much-recorded works. Stephen Maddock