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

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); CO of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-47334-2
The best comes at the beginning. Aimard and Harnoncourt are exhilarating in the first two concertos, and so individual it’s hard to think of anyone to compare with them. Beethoven’s roots in the spirit of 18th-century comic opera were never clearer – if that sounds crazily contentious, read Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style. It’s often said that Beethoven had no sense of humour – or that he did have one, but that it was invariably heavy and unsubtle, like the awful puns that fill his letters. The first disc puts both views to flight. Not only does Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s conducting have all his characteristic quirky brilliance, but he’s well 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 Romantic gravitas.

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In the later concertos, though, the doubts begin to creep in – as for instance in Harnoncourt’s handling of the very opening of No. 3: are those little pauses in the first theme pleasantly teasing or just plain irritating? There are fine things – especially in the Fourth Concerto, where Aimard makes as good a case as any for the rarely heard, startlingly mercurial second cadenza (certainly more suited to the general spirit of Aimard’s performance). But in the slow movements of this and the Fifth Concerto there’s something too self-conscious about the manner – expression feels cultivated rather than discovered from within the notes.

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If Romantic rapture is required above all, then Murray Perahia and Bernard Haitink on Sony are probably the best modern recommendation, although they can sound a bit convention-bound after Aimard and Harnoncourt at their best. Recordings are clear, if bit boxy; on the other hand, the placing of the piano closer to the orchestra than usual works very well, especially in registering the sparks in the relationship between soloist and conductor.