Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019 (No.3) & 2022 (No. 4), Liverpool Philharmonic, The Friary, West Everton, UK
Naxos 8.574152 [70]

Beautifully played and sensitively accompanied though it is, this new recording of the Third Concerto presents the listener with one central issue: recorded balance. After the lean, crisp introduction provided by Petrenko and the RLPO, so closely is Boris Giltburg’s sonorous, bell-like tone recorded here that the orchestral accompaniment seems to be more of a backdrop to a star soloist than an equal partner and the Largo, lovingly played, takes on the character of the slow movement of a sonata it is so immediate and sonically overblown.  Giltburg is a poet of the keyboard – more of a Keats than a Dryden, as he emphatically underlines the Romantic qualities of this music to the extent that just occasionally it verges on becoming self-regarding. Petrenko seems content to fall into line with that approach and just play the wingman. Giltburg’s virtuosity is unmistakable, especially in the regularity and solidity of his trills and the evenness of runs but the piano is so thunderous – very far removed from my experience of hearing this concerto live – that I cannot help but feel that we are listening to an artificial artefact of the recording studio. It is true that a recording sometimes provides an option preferable to sitting in a dead space in a concert hall where the piano’s sonority is lost but the lack of naturalness in the balance here is obtrusive.

While I am as fond of the Third Concerto as anyone, I actually favour the Fourth above all, even over the ‘Emperor’, and look for a more overtly 19C sensibility to the playing of it – a palpable break, if you will, from 18C classicism of the first three concertos, which Giltburg definitely provides. His application of rubato and sonorousness of his playing seem more apt for this work and the fact that the two concertos were recorded three years apart – albeit in the same venue – might explain why in the Fourth here the balance between orchestra and soloist is better, but the piano still comes over as rather clangourous and unnaturally overbearing. Having said that, there are many things I thoroughly enjoy; for example, Giltburg’s execution of the cadenza in the first movement of the Fourth is a masterclass; the dialogue between orchestra and piano opening the Andante strikingly contrasts the two voices, one brutally oppressive, the other gently pained and complaining; the verve of both Giltburg’s playing and Petrenko’s rejoinders in the finale is infectious, but the over-reverberant sound of the piano presents some barrier to enjoyment.

I rarely have cause to remark on the engineering of new digital recording these days – standards are so high – but this is an exception, more of a factor for me than any distaste for Giltburg’s manner.

Ralph Moore

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