Paul Lewis likes to take on major chunks of repertoire and immerse himself in the music of a single composer for extended periods of time. His set of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas earned a 2010 Blue Note Award, and on the evidence heard here a repeat of that honor for 2011 would be no surprise.
I noted in my review of the Piano Sonatas that Lewis seems to take a special pleasure in illuminating the lesser-known works in that remarkable canon-a trait he shares with his great predecessor Arthur Schnabel. This set of concertos suggests that Lewis is taking a similar approach here. The Concerto No. 2 In B-flat Major, op. 19 (actually the first in order of composition, despite the numbering) is the clear consensus choice among all my Beethoven-loving friends as the least distinctive of the five. I don't disagree with that judgment, but it is after all still Beethoven, and a crackling good performance is still a pleasure to hear. And that is exactly what it receives here. Lewis emphasizes a springy, propulsive rhythm and anchors the solo with a bracingly powerful left hand. Conductor Belohlavek the BBC players provide crisp phrasing and an equally strong rhythmic pulse. This is now my clear favorite recording of the Second. Those same qualities applied to a better work, the Concerto No. 1 in C Major op. 15, produces a spectacular performance. I especially enjoy the assertively powerful reading these forces give to the Rondo third movement. Again, I now have a new favorite performance.
With the last three concertos there is considerably more competition. Virtually every important pianist has felt the need to document his or her interpretations of these masterpieces. While I have many favorites-Fleischer, Arrau, Pollini, Michelangeli, Gilels, to name but a few, Lewis delivers consistent excellence throughout.
Belohlavek defers somewhat to Lewis's lead in these concertos. Other conductors and orchestras have given us more dramatic and assertively powerful interpretations, but I find the lean sonorities favored by Belohlavek quite appropriately matched to the soloist's approach to these works. Harmonia Mundi's recorded sound also strikes me as appropriate to the music making of these forces. The piano registers believably against the orchestral background, and the balance of sound is about as natural as piano concerto recordings are likely to be-there is no obtrusive spotlighting.
Beethoven completists should consider acquiring this set, as it captures the mid-career thoughts of one of our finest contemporary Beethoven interpreters. But it is also most recommendable for anyone who simply wants a thoughtful, beautifully played traversal of one of the cornerstones of our concert repertoire.