WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Rondo in B flat
PERFORMER: Robert Levin (fortepiano)Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 453 438-2
Choosing a recording of the Beethoven concertos has become a mighty complicated business. Faced, as you are nowadays, with deciding between mainstream and ‘authentic’ and between different kinds of ‘authentic’, you might be tempted to respond like the man who arrives at a wine-snob’s party. ‘Red or white?’ he’s asked. ‘Red, please.’ ‘Burgundy or Bordeaux?’ ‘Er… Bordeaux’. ‘Grand cru or village?’ ‘Oh for God’s sake just give me a glass of wine.’ The trick is not to be intimidated by all the antiquarian technicalities in the booklet notes (of which there are rather too much: do we really need to know who made the second clarinet and back desk violins for Tafelmusik?) and trust to your ears.
Mine were seized instantly by the rough, grainy energy of Gardiner’s orchestral sound – or was it the performance I was seized by, with its startling vividness of phrasing and dynamics? Levin’s piano sound seems disconcertingly small in comparison, but once you get accustomed to it the exuberant expressivity of the playing shines through. Levin clearly has nerves of steel – he improvises his cadenzas with an unblemished bravura that Beethoven himself would surely have admired. The pedal gives the fortepiano a wonderful ‘sfumato’ which actually emphasises the incipient Romanticism of these Classical works.
That Romanticism is more overtly projected in the Immerseel/Weil recordings of the Third and Fourth Concertos. This is partly due to the marvellous rich-brown velvet tones of the early 19th-century fortepiano – very different from Levin’s perky late 18th-century instrument. But the performances too have a soft-grained, intimate feel.
Given the arresting strangeness of the sound of these recordings, the Levine/Kissin version on ‘normal’ instruments might have been at a disadvantage. And so it was – for about thirty seconds. Then the superb musical qualities of the performers became evident, and I forgot all about the sound. Surely there’s a lesson there somewhere?