Okay, so let's get right to the bottom line: Get this CD right away. No matter who else already sits on your fav shelf for this music, you will find it quite easy to add this new recording of the Beethoven 3rd & 4th piano concertos. Cheap price, too. But nothing cheap, nothing cheap at all about either the recorded sound, or the quality of these performances.
If you have heard - and liked - the approach that Zinman & Tonhalle took to their prize-winning set of the complete Beethoven Symphonies (which deservedly earned the German record critics prize, and is also at budget prices on Arte Nova) - you can settle into your home system, or mp3 player, or car stereo for lots more of that same, Beethovenish vitality.
Zinman & Tonhalle have been influenced by all the paths opened up in the period instrument performances of baroque and classical music over the past five or six decades; without really having to play on gut strings and period instruments. So what's left? Well, somehow Zinman & Tonhalle manage their Beethoven with clarity, wit, punchy phrasing, and the wide open humanism that are the hallmarks of Beethoven's musical personality. There is not one ounce of romanticized fat in any of these Zinman-Tonhalle versions of the symphonies, and that is all to the good, since Beethoven is not at all confined to what the nineteenth century made out of him and made out of his music. In addition to the clarity, the tonal transparency that period peformance suggests, Zinman-Tonhalle also give us the rough-hewn punning, the startlingly clear and high musical intellect, and the energy that fairly bursts from Beethoven's unprecedented approach to both harmony and rhythm. Listening to Beethoven played this way, you easily credit his supposed reputation as the finest improviser of his era.
Into this notable Beethoven mix comes pianist Yefim Bronfman. He certainly has his chops. More to the point, Bronfman and Zinman-Tonhalle are worthy and alert partners throughout. Conductor & pianist see eye to eye, without losing their own insights and musical commitments. Put Tonhalle, Zinman & Bronfman together in Beethoven, and you get alchemy that is way more than the simple sum of the parts. The 3rd concerto may have been an improvement on the first and second piano concertos, even in the composer's mind; but the 4th reaches even higher and deeper. As a reference point, Bronfman's playing is closer to, say, Wilhelm Kempff or Wilhelm Backhaus or the young Leon Fleischer in this repertoire, than to more highly italicized styles of alleged romantic piano playing. This Beethoven cannot ever be confused with Chopin or Schumann or Rachmaninoff. That is just as it should be.
If the Tonhalle strings do themselves proud in accompanying, that is not to undervalue or disrespect the amazing contributions of the woodwinds and the brass. Simply everybody showed up for the sessions, and nobody was playing by rote.
All of this Beethovenian energy and sheer joy in living would be nothing if the recording engineers had not done their job, too. The sound is rather close and clear, somewhat in the old Szell-Cleveland manner; without any multi-miked glare and without any fuzz. From top frequency to bottom, the orchestra departments are all present, and nobody is sacrificed to make anybody else's point. The piano is placed just right, as a solo instrument with the rest of the orchestra, and not playing in another room somewhere on its own spot mike with the pianist wearing headphones.
One hopes dearly that this is the beginning of a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle from Bronfman, Zinman, Tonhalle. One even dreams of Arte Nova being brave enough to redo their old Beethoven sonata cycle with Yefim Bronfman to replace Alfredo Perl. There is not a bit of glassy tone here, no matter how crisply Bronfman plays; and that would serve the piano sonatas very well (if anybody at Arte Nova is listening).
Five stars, then. Now stop reading & click your way to happy, amazed ownership. Yeah. These guys are just that good.