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This review is from: Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos.4 & 5 (Audio CD)
Beethoven's piano concertos are all masterpieces. It is only 4 & 5 that really break the Mozartian mould but all five are wonderful pieces of music in their own right. The early ones do sound rather like Mozart. So what. Is this a bad thing? We don't criticise Mozart for sounding like Mozart.
Although 5 is the grandest and probably still the most popular, my personal favourites are 3 & 4
The versions discussed are all good versions, by first-class pianists with excellent conductors and orchestras, which will undoubtedly give lots of listening pleasure.
I got to know Beethoven's piano concertos via Wilhelm Kempff's stereo cycle and via Stephen Kovacevich, and both remain benchmarks for me in different ways. In music you often fall in love with what you hear first and that's how it is for me.
Kempff's playing (on DG) is magical in all five as is Leitner's orchestral accompaniment with the Berlin Philharmonic. Kempff's style is essentially classical throughout so no bombast or overstatement but no awkwardness or ugliness. Evenness of quality throughout means every single moment of every movement is a pleasure to listen to. Still, some might find these performances lacking in the very last ounce of strength e.g. at the commencement of the recapitulation in 4/1 (see next paragraph). In 4/3 there is diamond precision and drama. The analogue recording is good - not just for the 1960's - good period.
Kovacevich and Davis on Philips. A different kind of magic - Kovacevich has all the ruggedness, strong contrasts and raw emotion that some might miss in Kempff. 4/1 is absolutely magnificent: compare the same moment at the start of the recapitulation, when the piano almost jumps out of the speakers - Kovacevich delivering Beethoven at his most noble and majestic. 4/3 however sounds too hard-driven for me by comparison with Kempff. Then again the slow movement in 3 is wonderfully played - the opening bars are very poignant and searching indeed. But in the slow movement in 5, the piano entry is too quiet - inaudible above the orchestral background. The quality is uneven then, but at their best these performances are unequalled and I would not be without them. Analogue recording is fine - better than Kempff unsurprisingly since recorded about ten years later.
Uchida and Sanderling also on Philips. Mitsuko Uchida's recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas and concertos both receive praise, although some find the concertos too prettified and insufficiently robust in her hands. This description might also be applied to Uchida's Beethoven - lovely playing from pianist and orchestra, but, more so than Kempff, lacking strength. Still there is plenty to enjoy all the way through, no shortage of drama, and some very fine moments e.g. the closing moments of 3/1 could hardly be played better - utterly spellbinding. Excellent digital recording.
Perahia and Haitink on CBS. In many ways with Perahia you get the best of both worlds, refinement and strength (plus digital recording). His magnificent piano playing has all the consistent sparkle of Kempff together with the wide dynamic range and dramatic contrasts of Kovacevich, matched all the way by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In all fairness these are probably the finest versions I know of all five concertos and I can strongly recommend them. Inevitably at times I think ah yes but Kempff does this or Kovacevich does that, but I am sure anyone coming to these concertos for the first time would easily find plenty to delight and fall in love with. Take for instance the last moments of 3/3 when the music modulates from minor to major...... Not to say that other versions aren't worth having......