BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, op. 19. Piano Concerto
No. 3 in c, op. 37.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
(No. 2), Clemens Krauss (No. 3).
Pristine Classics PASC 330 MONO TT: 61:45.
(Available from PRISTINE CLASSICS
Great second, problematic third. For sure, Backhaus knows how to play the
piano. No one has ever questioned his regard for, even worship of Beethoven.
However, I found his complete traversals of the piano sonata cycle inconsistent,
to say the least. Superb, sharply-etched readings stand side-by-side with
clueless, shapeless ones. Furthermore, a certain corporate blandness hangs
over too many -- a "white paper" interpretation, rather than
a personal one.
Consequently, I approached this disc gingerly. I set my expectations low,
and Backhaus confounded them with strong performances in both cases. The
Classical period sorted concertos into various types: lyrical, pastoral,
divertissement, and martial or military among them. Beethoven concentrated
exclusively on the martial concerto, probably since it best fit his style
of extreme dramatic contrast. Most performers treat the Concerto No. 2
like a poor relation. They put up with it but would prefer to spend time
communing with Nos. 3 through 5. For years, I made excuses for the Second
as almost student Beethoven. I had the excuse that Beethoven himself afterward
rated this and No. 1 as "not among my best," but I feel ashamed
of myself. Backhaus changed my mind. I now don't think of the work as an
inferior Beethoven concerto, lacking the innovations of, say, No. 4, but
a superior Mozart one, moving with great assurance within the conventions
of late Classicism. Years later, Beethoven himself still thought enough
of it to write a cadenza for it.
Formally, the concerto follows the usual lines: a sonata first movement,
an A-B-A song slow movement, and a rondo finale (A-B-A-C-A-B-A). However,
the level of thematic invention and variation remains high throughout.
Backhaus glitters in the quick movements and sings beautifully in the middle
one. However, Böhm and the Vienna Phil also contribute substantially
to make this one of the great recordings of the concerto. In the first
movement, the Vienna strings, forgetting their usual suavity, give their
lines exciting little nips that perk up your ears. In the second, Böhm
finds the depth in a movement that too often just goes by. Both he and
Backhaus convince you that this is one of the great Beethoven adagios.
The final movement is noteworthy for the way Backhaus and the orchestra
flick the syncopations of the main theme. Backhaus's passagework sparkles.
The near-perfect ensemble balance reinforces the unanimity of intention
between soloist and orchestra.
The third concerto lacks that strong connection. First, under Krauss the
orchestra's attack (particularly the strings) becomes spongy. The winds,
for the most part, manage sharp attacks but combined with the strings,
the ensemble is often raggedy, particularly not really what you want in
such a martial concerto. You miss certain important thematic details from
the orchestra, not helped by a poor recording balance on the original LP
which puts the players slightly too far back in the image, like a consort
who walks seven paces behind the ruler. In the first movement, another
c-minor storm like the Pathétique Sonata, the orchestra handles
the introduction beautifully, with superbly well-managed crescendos. However,
as the movement progresses, it begins to lose focus. Backhaus becomes the
rather stern marshal, apparently taking direction over from Krauss by an
insistence on the rhythmic integrity of the measure. I reserve most of
my admiration for Backhaus, who gives a vivid performance. He uses his
own cadenza, which starts out well, but sometimes veers away from Beethoven
into Liszt-Rachmaninoff territory (I think especially of a loud sequential
passage of articulated diminished-seventh chords). On the one hand, it's
great piano playing, but I'm not sure what to make of the stylistic difference.
If we long for the days when the soloist actually improvised his cadenza,
then I think we must expect an individual take on the material and take
into account that the soloist has heard music the composer has not and
that such experience likely goes into the improvisation. The question then
becomes the worth of the cadenza. I think, ultimately, that the cadenza
shows me less about Beethoven and more about Backhaus the pianist, the
wizard of the keys.
The second-movement Largo is a variation set. Krauss and Backhaus go for
Profundity (a peeve of mine), but, by Granny's undies, they pretty near
pull it off. Backhaus toes the line of pokey, but manages to keep the musical
line spinning. The strings of the Vienna Phil are gorgeous here, Backhaus's
pedaling as well. As far as I can tell, he actually follows Beethoven's
pedaling indications, not usual enough to take for granted.
The performers regard the rondo finale in an off-beat way. Usually, players,
considering other Beethoven c-minor scores, look to storm the heavens.
Backhaus and Krauss work to stress intimacy and ensemble.
Backhaus's second I think an essential performance, the third less so,
though by no means routine. It's a reading you add once you've experienced
more basic ones. Pristine delivers one of its better sonic reconstructions.
Extraneous noises and distortions have been cleaned up. More importantly,
in LPs of this era, the sound tends to reproduce as if three dimensions
have been flattened to two. Pristine has an ap for that:
you seem to hear the ambience of the hall.
S.G.S. (November 2012)