Ludwig van Beethoven
Gerard Willems, Piano
Earlier this year I reviewed the complete set of Beethoven piano sonatas on the Australian ABC label featuring the pianist Gerard Williams using Stuart & Sons pianos. This set of the five Beethoven piano concertos is the companion box to the earlier set, and was recorded between October 2002 and July 2003 in the Eugene Goossens Hall. I found the sonata set remarkable for the sound of the piano itself and for the quality of the recording, but rather uneven in terms of performance.
This 3-CD set provokes a similar reaction. The first two Piano Concertos, Opus 15 in C and Opus 19 in B-flat, are boldly conceived and beautifully played, with a lightness of touch in the orchestra and well sprung rhythms. Williams' articulation is well up to the task, and the piano is so colorful and clear as to dispel all doubts. Williams selects Beethoven cadenzas throughout and brings a lot of passion to his performance.
Sinfonia Australis is a Sydney-based chamber orchestra specializing in music of the Classical era. It brings something of a period-instrument sensitivity to these performances, a good match for the sound of the remarkable Stuart & Sons piano, in some ways a modern development of the fortepiano. Conductor Anthony Walker is a native of Sidney, and became Musical Director of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs at the age of 22 before taking up a position with the Welsh National Opera in 1997. He now divides his time between positions in Australia and Washington DC where he is Director of the Washington Concert Opera.
Fine as they are, I wouldn't say these performances are groundbreaking or profound. There are many other fine versions on record. James Levine brings much more power and flexibility to the orchestral contribution on his recent performance with Evgeny Kissin of the 2nd Piano Concerto, assisted by my favorite orchestra, the Philharmonia [Sony 62926], while Kissin's lightning reflexes and breathtaking technique add excitement and refinement to the mix. But these new versions are performances I can live with, and they bear repeated listening.
It's a different story when we come to the 3rd Piano Concerto, Opus 37 in C minor. This is a masterwork of subtlety, poetry, passion and power. Frankly, Williams is not up to the task. Phrasing lets him down repeatedly. I find this particular performance profoundly disappointing coming after his success in the earlier works. Piano passages peter out when the impetus should be sustained, piano and orchestra seem at times to be going in different directions, and I sense a reluctance to allow the music to breath.
Williams redeems himself somewhat in the 4th Piano Concerto, Opus 58 in G. The famous dialog between piano and orchestra in the second movement is taken at an unusually fast pace, but is nonetheless effective. This is a direct and precise performance, with well-chosen tempos. But there's something missing, and Schnabel shows us what it is. His 1938 performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent (later Sir Malcolm), never the most subtle or profound of conductors, sears the brain with its intensity and poetry. Young Sargent plays well above his game here. Schnabel developed a reputation for technical fallibility but there is not the slightest trace of that on this recording in the series Great Pianists of the 20th Century [Philips 456 961-2]. The sheer panache of the pianism and Schnabel's ability to cut straight through to the heart of the music are breathtaking. The orchestral support is quicksilver and inspired to match.
If you think they don't make pianists like that anymore, you're probably right, but Kissin makes a strong counter-argument in the Emperor Concerto, Opus 73 in E-flat major, the coupling to his performance of the 2nd Piano Concerto. Where Williams and Walker produce a bold and colorful performance, Kissin lights a fire under the orchestra and sets the work ablaze with crackling energy, startling alertness to the score's mood changes, and crystalline phrasing. Kissin can often miss the inner poetry of a work, but this is one of his best showings, while the Philharmonia is fully up to the challenge under Levine's responsive baton.
The wider tonal palette of the Stuart & Sons piano is evident throughout the five concertos, and the high power and clear articulation and sustaining power in the treble register help to clarify some of the more climactic moments. The recording engineer Allan Maclean has done a particularly fine job, and I extend my congratulations and thanks to the entire team under the leadership of Executive Producer Brendan Ward. They have introduced us to Australian music making at its best, and I welcome the exposure it has provided for Gerard Williams and Antony Walker and the magnificent pianos from Stuart and Sons.
Concertos No 1 and 2:
Concertos No 3, 4 and 5: