Beethoven concertos BIS2581

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1793-98)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 15 ‘Emperor’ (1809)
Haochen Zhang (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Nathalie Stutzmann
rec. 2021, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Cultural Campus, Philadelphia, USA
BIS BIS2581 SACD [3 discs: 175]

My taste in complete sets of Beethoven’s piano concertos has never been especially adventurous. For years I was content with what must now be considered the vintage set by Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis recorded between 1969 and 1974 on Philips, and somewhat more recently Pletnev’s Moscow cycle from 2006; otherwise, I have contented myself with a mix-and-match approach, including various versions of the two later concertos by Fischer, Backhaus, Gulda, Serkin, Gilels, Kissin – and my “wild card” favourite recording of the Emperor by Hanae Nakajima. Nothing since has floated my boat – certainly not Brendel with Rattle or Lewis with Bělohlávek, both of which I found to be irredeemably dull. Nor am I interested in fortepiano accounts; I am convinced that Beethoven would have thought he had died and gone to heaven had he had access to a modern Steinway as per here. Of course, the field is very broad and my references here barely begin to cover the possible choices; be that as it may, I thought it high time I listened properly to one of the many young, Chinese, virtuoso pianists with whom we are currently blessed.

Shanghai-born Haochen Zhang first rose to fame by winning the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, actually turning nineteen years old during the competition. He has since released two records on the BIS label and the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky concertos album was very favourably received on this site (review ~ review ~ review). He has evidently not rushed his career; this survey of the Beethoven concertos is his most ambitious project yet. I was also curious to hear Nathalie Stutzmann – whose career as a contralto I have followed and whom I have much admired – conduct these core works with a major American orchestra, recorded in what is acoustically one of the finest venues in the world, the Verizon Hall. The BIS engineers do not disappoint; the sound is full, deep and detailed, warm without glare or muddiness.

I was also interested to hear how Stutzmann would direct a big band like the Philadelphians. They still produce a warm, rich sound but there is a here fleetness and clarity about their playing; vibrato is sparing and there is suppleness to their articulation which I find very attractive; Stutzmann shapes phrases sensitively without bombast and balances are both amongst the orchestral instruments and between the orchestra and the soloist are ideal. The playing of the woodwind is especially characterful and the rapport between the conductor and soloist is evident; they are clearly in agreement in generating an atmosphere of collaborative intimacy.

Zhang is technically immaculate; he delivers highly musical but relatively straightforward interpretations devoid of the individual, even quirky, touches that Pletnev, for example, brings to his cycle. His trills are crystalline, his tone lucent and bell-like and the fluency of the cadenza in the first movement of No. 1 – he plays Beethoven’s own – is absolutely astonishing, as are the evenness and steadiness of the runs in the first movement of No. 2 – amply demonstrating how the young Beethoven was determined to show off his own proficiency as a keyboard virtuoso.

The first three concertos are identifiably classical in their balance and restraint – essentially Mozartian in their delicacy and precision – and Zhang and Stutzmann clearly bracket No. 3 with the first two concertos, accentuating its lyrical poise rather than taking the usual stance of labelling it as proto-Romantic – which runs counter to the notes, which suggest that the third concerto “marks a change of course and a profound stylistic change”. The slow movement, however, is decidedly more recognisably “Beethovenian” in its soulful profundity. Zhang plays it with meltingly beautiful and surprisingly deep, sonorous tone; there are moments when the Largo anticipates the Romanticism of Chopin – and the beautiful recorded sound enhances that sensation, whereas the vitality and exuberance of the young Beethoven are more obviously reflected in the sprightliness of finales, which are captivating when the little skipping, tripping phrases and acciaccaturas are played with this kind of elan.

This purposeful grouping of the first three concertos is to me an unqualified success and I find the performances of them ideal – but that invites the question of whether there is a stylistic leap between the idioms of the Third and Fourth and if Zhang bridges or emphasises that gap or continues in a recognisably similar vein. I certainly sense a new gravitas to the opening of the Fourth; yes, we have entered the era of a new aesthetic sensibility. Stutzmann is now asking for more heft from her orchestra and employing more rubato in her phrasing, while Zhang is giving much more weight to his left hand and conjuring a rounder, more resonant tone without sacrificing any of his habitual flexibility. To illustrate that point, let me cite the decorated reprise of the main theme at 10:31 in the first movement; from that point on we are surrounded by an enhanced sonority and have left “porcelain daintiness” far behind. The unequal battle between the growling, barking orchestra and the yielding, wilting piano in the beginning of the slow movement is vividly characterised, like the concerto equivalent of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, ending in a dying fall. The change of mood from such tenderness to the thundering, bacchanalian whirl of the finale is a wrench unflinchingly executed here.

On listening to the concertos in chronological order and having thoroughly enjoyed the first four. I could not help but hope that the Emperor would match them in quality, as that would make this new set a prime, modern recommendation for the collector. I was not disappointed. Despite the audible stylistic concessions to historically informed scholarship, there is no lack of drive and passion in this rendition and I am pleased to report that Zhang is not in the least reluctant to inject a suitably clangourous element into his tone for the wilder, martial passages. The Adagio, in contrast, could not be more tenderly or sensitively played; the listener bathes in a stream of pearlescent notes and I particularly appreciate how well-co-ordinated and unhurried Stutzmann and Zhang are here. The segue into the Rondo is beautifully judged and there is plenty of percussive edge to Zhang’s delivery, so different from his touch in the earlier concertos.

It seems to me that Zhang has gauged exactly right the timing of his embarking upon these cornerstone repertoire works and has found the right partners to produce a thoroughly enjoyable set which not only showcases his prowess but does honour to the music itself.

Ralph Moore

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