WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); CO of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-81039-2
There are two related heresies about Beethoven: that he had no sense of humour, and that he did have a sense of humour, but it’s invariably heavy and unsubtle – like the awful puns that fill his letters. For people who still believe either version, this disc ought to be compulsory listening. Not only does Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s conducting have all his characteristic quirky brilliance, but he’s also exquisitely partnered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a pianist who can combine strength and clarity with palette-cleansing lightness and a sense of mischievous fun that seems exactly right in passage after passage. To hear him in the finale of the Second Concerto or the First’s stupendously mock-heroic solo cadenza is to realise how much we lose when we expect every Beethovenian utterance to be delivered with full gravitas.
If Beethoven as the inheritor of the spirit of 18th-century comic opera doesn’t appeal, and Romantic rapture is required above all, then Murray Perahia and Bernard Haitink on Sony are probably the best modern recommendation. It’s striking that Perahia is most convincing where Aimard can seem slightly less engaged – in the slow movements. That said, however, Aimard’s sensitive pedalling and delicate phrasing make the unaccompanied recitative-like solo passage near the end of the Adagio of No. 2 a specially memorable moment. These performances succeed on their own terms – extensive comparisons aren’t really relevant. Recordings are bright and clear to match the playing. Stephen Johnson