Beethoven Piano Concertos 3, 4 & 5 - International Record Review

There's no need for any hesitation here: this is a wonderful pair of discs of Beethoven's last three piano concertos. Artur Pizarro already has impressive credentials as a Beethoven player: his recording of the last three piano sonatas (also on Linn, reviewed in February 2004) was notable for its tonal range and fine sense of musical architecture, as well as its technical excellence, and more recently he has made a memorable pair of Ravel discs for the same company (these were reviewed in March 2007 and November 2008). He continues to grow as an artist of great refinement and intelligence. Following the triumphant success of their set of late Mozart Symphonies, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Charles Mackerras provide yet more inspiring evidence that the orchestra and its Conductor Laureate are as persuasive a partnership in Viennese Classical repertoire as any around today. This Pizarro/Mackerras/SCO collaboration has now produced one of the most insightful and exciting Beethoven concerto recordings to have come my way in years.

Pizarro and Mackerras seem to share the same approach to this music - both have looked at these works afresh and have found new things in them, but there's nothing wilful about this process of rediscovery: the result is nearly two hours of unalloyed delight. For an idea of how they set about these works listen to the first couple of minutes of the Emperor: after Pizarro's heroic opening flourish, the tutti is unleashed with an energy and sweep that marks this out as a very special performance indeed. This is bristling with energy (with wonderfully animated inner parts) but it's never pushed too hard; the music is vibrant, vital and thrilling, yet it also breathes completely naturally. The same qualities are to be found throughout this Emperor: Pizarro's virtuosity is allied to a fine sense of scale, a beautiful piano sound and a feeling for musical trajectory that is brilliantly matched by orchestra and conductor. The Rondo finale is as joyous as any I know: it's really swaggering.

The C minor Concerto is every bit as good. The ensemble in the first movement is not only impeccable but soloist and orchestra seem to be feeling this music with one mind: the sense is of a giant chamber ensemble. Pizarro's tone is warm and his playing has lovely clarity, matched by an orchestra that is attentive to every note - the details that come through are never underlined for effect, but it is wonderful to hear them, and everything is underpinned by cellos and basses that seem to serve as the engine-room of the music. This means that while textures are bright, with forward woodwind, they are also sonorous, an ideal match for Pizarro's honeyed but lucid sound something that is deployed very beautifully at the start of the slow movement, where his playing has a quiet rapture (and freedom) that is memorable. In the Fourth Concerto, Pizarro is perhaps a shade less urgent in the slow movement than Mackerras, but then the musical material is sharply contrasted: the orchestra trenchant and the piano almost dream-like. The finale is impossible to resist: very light on its feet and full of charm, as well as having a clear sense of purpose.

There are plenty of fine recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos (my own favourite cycle is the live Serkin/Kubelík set on Orfeo), but I don't know of any direct rival in the last three. I urge collectors to hear this outstanding new set, which is much helped by a spectacular recording that combines transparency and fullness of sound, and is enhanced by interesting booklet notes. I do hope that the same partnership might now give us the first two concertos, but in the meantime, this new release is a superb achievement, very warmly recommended.

International Record Review
27 May 2009