Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos

Yefim Bronfman, piano; Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman conducting
Brilliant Classics 94856
Three CDs



Chopin Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra

Oleg Marshev, piano; South Denmark Philharmonic, David Porcelijn conducting
Danacord DACOCD 701-702
Two CDs



by Richard Freed | March 22, 2015

et’s just state right off that both of these sets may strike more than a few seasoned listeners as downright irresistible, no matter how many recordings of the familiar concertos may already be in their collections. Both provide their own distinctive pleasures, on a level that happily leaves the whole idea of comparison more or less beside the point.

While Yefim Bronfman is hardly a newcomer among the important pianists of the day, he has never commanded superstar status, in the sense of those glamorously promoted performers people go to see as much as to hear, or simply go to see, period. He is a superb musician, and happens to be also a dazzling technician -- but one who never allows technical display to be the basis or the object of his playing. It is one of the several arrows in his artistic quiver, all of them placed entirely at the service of the music and enabling him to flatter his audience by serving up real substance rather than mere fireworks (on which, however, he is never short when they are called for).

How some of us managed to overlook his Beethoven concerto cycle, recorded ten years ago and originally issued on the Arte Nova label, I can’t imagine, but I’m certainly happy that Brilliant Classics has brought it out again, so handsomely presented, so attractively priced, and so totally persuasive in every musical sense. David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra are expectedly fine partners. Their Beethoven symphony cycle, on Arte Nova, remains one of the finest on CD, and Zinman, never a mere "accompanist," has always been one of the most thoughtful and expert of concerto collaborators.

In short, the highest expectations are realized or surpassed in this set, as both pianist and conductor characteristically seem to leave their own egos at home in order to enter fully into the composer’s world and relish the productive give-and-take of their happy and confident exploration of it. That is not to say they are totally unmindful of their intended audience, but that mindfulness is in the sense of further sharing, never of simply making an impression. Everything here is freshly thought out, which is to say it is not simply "generic" Beethoven, but there is no hint of eccentricity, either. Each of the individual works is appreciated and realized on its own terms.

While the set is titled simply Complete Piano Concertos, there are actually two additional works, both a good deal shorter and less familiar than the concertos, and both involving a chorus, in this case the fine Schweizer Kammerchor. One is the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80, with which Beethoven concluded the famous long concert at the Theater an der Wien toward the end of 1808 in which he also introduced, among other works, his Fifth and Sixth symphonies; the other is the still less familiar setting for chorus and orchestra of Goethe’s twin poems whose title is more familiar to most of us from Mendelssohn’s use of it for one of his concert overtures: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”). Both of these, with Bronfman taking part in the Choral Fantasy, are realized with the same sense of commitment and total-immersion belief as the five concertos.

If there is any room for complaint, it is definitely not in the music-making or the sound quality, but in the documentation. According to the annotative insert, the "first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto . . . was performed at Vienna’s Kärtnertor Theatre on Ash Wednesday of the year 1812." Apart from the clumsy language about when the performance occurred, the statement is simply inaccurate. The work’s premiere was given in Leipzig in November 1811, by a little-known and otherwise forgotten pianist named Friedrich Schneider, who was 25 years old at the time. Although Beethoven, himself a stunning pianist, wrote all four of his earlier piano concertos for himself and gave their respective premieres, he did not intend the Fifth for himself, and he never performed it. Its only performances in Vienna during his lifetime were given by his pupil Carl Czerny, in February 1812 and April 1818.

That bit of misinformation is not about to affect anyone’s listening pleasure, but there is a more serious documentary lapse that might: the absence of the sung texts for the two choral works. Whether in a concert or on a CD, if a work of music involves words, those words constitute the one truly indispensable element in any sort of annotation, and they are not offered here.

While that omission is regrettable, and the cadenzas aren’t identified either, the missing texts may be found easily enough on the Internet, and performances on the consistently high level of those offered here are not likely to be found very frequently from any source. Moreover, the entire three-disc set, whose elegant packaging does not betray its budget price, is being offered for about $17.50, and it would be an outsized bargain without any annotation at all.

If the combination of Beethoven, Bronfman and Zinman is pretty much an assurance of an exceptional musical experience, the Chopin set comes as an almost total surprise, in the happiest sense. Relatively few of us may have even heard of the pianist Oleg Marshev, fewer still are likely to forget him after hearing these Chopin performances. Until fairly recently, the Danish label Danacord, founded in 1979, had been devoted entirely to Danish music, but of late it has been recording this brilliant Russian pianist -- now about 50, winner of numerous competitions and awards--with a provincial but resourceful Danish orchestra, in Russian, German, French and Danish concerted works, and now this engaging collection of all six concerted works by Chopin: the two concertos, the Variations on Lŕ ci darem la mano, the Fantasy on Polish Airs, the Krakowiak, and the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante.

In contrast with the solid, tasteful packaging of the Beethoven set, that of the Chopin is colorful and playful, rather in keeping with the lighter character of the four shorter works, and with Marshev’s vivacious and assured approach to them and the two concertos. Not that sentiment is denied its due in the two big works, but it is allowed to rise naturally from the music, without gratuitous emphasis.

The two concertos, of course, are works of considerable substance, and have been given memorable recordings by the likes of Arthur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, Emanuel Ax, Tamás Vásáry and Maurizio Pollini, but the four shorter pieces (three of them composed even earlier, in Chopin’s teens) are performed and recorded a good deal less frequently, and seldom as infectiously as in the set welcomed here. If that factor is what attracts attention to this set, perhaps the most remarkable surprise is how fully competitive the performances of the concertos themselves happen to be, with an orchestra about the size of those Chopin would have known.

Marshev’s kinship with Bronfman is his healthy spirit of spontaneity, tempered by his natural predisposition toward recognizing what the composer was getting at and in general regarding the music as being beyond question something more than a mere platform for displaying his own virtuosity. The short of it is that he appears to be having a wonderful time, and it would take a heart of stone to resist sharing that sensation with him. Those four short works, so seldom heard, are out-and-out virtuoso showcases, but they are by no means without substance, or without genuine, unforced charm, as is made so abundantly clear in the effervescent, utterly assured performances recorded here.

To be sure, the orchestral substance of these Chopin works is a good deal thinner than in any of the Beethoven concertos, but in the capable hands of the Dutch conductor David Porcelijn it does everything Chopin can set out for it to do, and his partnership with Marshev is as effective, on its more modest scale, as that of Bronfman and Zinman in the Beethoven. The splendidly open, well-balanced recordings were produced by Lennart Dehn, whose name is familiar from so many of Neeme Järvi’s BIS and Deutsche Grammophon recordings with the Gothenburg SO, and the thoughtful layout gives us separate tracks, not only for the movements of the concertos and the two-part pieces, but for the seven individual variations on the Mozart aria and the five elaborate sections of the Polish Fantasy.

The ample annotative insert includes solid background on the music and the performers, and a list of seven additional concerto collections with the same pianist and orchestra, ranging from Robert and Clara Schumann to Prokofiev by way of some other Russians, four Danes, Debussy, Ravel, and Franck. I’d like to hear them all, and I’d expect the three-disc Mendelssohn set [DACOCD 734-736], again with David Porcelijn conducting, to be another winner.

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