Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Ludwig van Beethoven

Arthur Schoonderwoerd, Ensemble Cristofori

album cover

Works for Piano and Orchestra, as Beethoven Intended

When our modern orchestras gather to play Beethoven, are we hearing what the composer intended? According to those involved in the period-instruments movement, in many cases the answer is no—modern instruments, while more practical and easier to play in tune, are also louder and at times less subtle. The steel strings that replaced catgut strings for violin and cello are more brittle. And the ensembles are considerably larger: Beethoven wrote these works for piano and orchestra in 1807 and 1809 intending them to be played by twenty musicians (in a ballroom no less!), not an army of eighty or a hundred. What a composer intended as a fleeting coloristic dab can, in modern rendering, translate into a massive thunderclap.

This recording offers an excellent encounter with the early-music philosophy, which shares a kinship with heirloom vegetable farming and other back-to-basics movements. From the very first notes of the Fourth Concerto, the Cristofori ensemble lures listeners away from the big, the towering, and the modern, and into a place where each attack is a discreet and precious event. This changes the entire dynamic of the music making: In many performances of the Fourth, the orchestra bullies the piano, and by the end there's a kind of chilly standoff. Here, it's as though we're embroiled in a deep discussion between the two different fields of sound. If there's a psychological winner, it's not the orchestra, as is usually the case, but the keyboard, with its nimble and fantastic flourishes glancing off the big string chords.

Soloist Arthur Schoonderwoerd keeps the dialogue going through both of these majestic pieces. He plays the fortepiano—that tinkly, super-precise missing link between the harpsichord and the modern piano—with an almost exaggerated militaristic articulation, and a keen sense of when to duck behind the curtain of the ensemble. He offers a buoyant perspective on Concerto No. 5, the mighty "Emperor," savoring the long arching melodies of the Adagio second movement without making them overwrought. His performance affirms all the glory and heroism of Beethoven's great melodies, while drawing attention to the delicate balances of light, and shade, and the colors Beethoven put there—qualities that have been overwhelmed by modern orchestral interpretation.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2005, Alpha Productions
Key Tracks: Concerto No. 4: first movement. Concerto No. 5: second and third movements.
Another Interpretation: Piano Concerto No. 5: Rudolf Serkin, New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.)
Catalog Choice: Late Piano Sonatas, Solomon Cutner
Next Stop: Martha Argerich: Chopin, The Legendary 1965 Recording
Book Pages: 69–70

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