Recording of November 2010: Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1–5

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1–5
Paul Lewis, piano; Jirí Belohlávek, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi 902053.55 (3 CDs). 2010. Martin Sauer, prod.; Philip Knop, eng. DDD. TT: 2:55:42
Performance *****
Sonics *****

British pianist Paul Lewis, 38 years old, has already made quite a name for himself in the music of Beethoven: he has recorded all of the sonatas in four sets of discs, and each set has garnered fine reviews and won awards. Here he undertakes the concertos and does himself proud; indeed, these performances are remarkable for clean, insightful playing, a superb sense of teamwork with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jirí Belohlávek, and originality without eccentricity.

Concerto 2, the first composed, maintains a decidedly classical poise; indeed, there are many Mozartean moments. It is the most lightly orchestrated of the five (although the third adds only an extra flute), and Belohlávek begins it with a delightful élan; it actually sounds as if it is about to be fun. And it is—the opening movement, Allegro con brio, has real animation (brio); the touch is light and brightly lit. I'd say it almost bounces, but that might imply affect, and this is just great, enjoyable music-making. The second movement, Adagio, is songlike, and Lewis plays it like bel canto: simply lovely. And the Rondo is deliciously quick and well articulated. It's the most enjoyable performance of this concerto I've ever heard, perhaps because Lewis doesn't condescend to its Classicism, but plays it with the skills of a pole-vaulter: nimbleness, precision, grace.

Concerto 1, composed second, is a bigger work, longer and more heavily scored. Belohlávek immediately sets the dignified tone, and when the full orchestra enters it's clear that we're working on a different scale, though it still feels like one of Mozart's late concertos—hardly faint praise. Lewis's touch is still not heavy, but has a certain determination that impresses, and by the middle of the first movement, Allegro con brio, his playing is huge. The long cadenza (Beethoven wrote three; this is the longest) reiterates what we've just heard in a very powerful way. The slow movement, Largo, is very slowly played in a single long, lyrical statement both moving and charming. It sets us up for the fabulous final Rondo. Allegro scherzando, certainly one of Beethoven's happiest moments, and here played fast and with great sparkle.

As the darker Concerto 3 begins, we near the Beethoven of the "Eroica" Symphony, and Belohlávek uses strong, dramatic accents. Lewis enters at 3:28 with the no-nonsense theme; he doesn't overstate, but we're obviously in a new neighborhood. The playing from all forces is always vibrant and rhythmically balanced. The Largo is the first movement in a Beethoven concerto that challenges the listener; its secrets unfold slowly. It begins with a statement for solo piano that is both quiet and puzzling, with a dark trill just before the orchestra enters (at 1:10 on this recording) to briefly turn the melody into something more approachable. The effect is at once sumptuous and introspective, and Lewis keeps the warm tension going. This is some of the most expressive piano playing you'll ever hear. The Rondo. Allegro finale is played joyously but still with a darkish hue—note the ferocity of Lewis's entrance at 7:43, and his grand attacks in the work's final moments.

The fourth concerto was premiered in 1808, along with Symphonies 5 and 6 and the Choral Fantasy—a single concert program clearly arranged to prove a point. Beethoven was the soloist. The work's construction is odd; had another piano concerto ever begun with a very quiet solo for piano that disappears almost immediately, followed by two full minutes or more of orchestral statement. The give-and-take of the piano and orchestra are revolutionary—the sense that much of the piano part is being improvised is extraordinary. The soloist is alternately lyrical and forceful, and I love how Lewis and Belohlávek slow down for the sweet spells, underlining them and making us savor them. The middle movement, a mere five minutes of Andante con moto, is played with tragic undertones; Belohlávek? gets the orchestra to play in an almost Slavic manner, with Lewis alternating with it at a whisper, almost refusing to acknowledge its power to overwhelm while the piano sadly deals with its own feelings. The 45-second left-hand trill mid-movement is almost overwhelming in its drama, with a crescendo that is close to painful. The Rondo. Vivace is a joy, Lewis making the piano part sound easy and airy and, after the busy cadenza, leaving the listener wanting to dance.

What can one say about Concerto 5? There are more than 225 recordings available, and everyone knows it and loves it. It catches the attention immediately, announcing an explosion of Romanticism from both orchestral chords and grand pianistic gestures; we've come a long way from Concertos 2 and 1. The manly main theme of the first movement, Allegro, instantly recognizable and too often played as an anthem, swaggers in but never seems to be trying to make an effect: it's just gigantic and can't help it. Throughout, Lewis engages in no grandstanding; the movement is just magnificently performed. With the three themes ideally interwoven, the sound rich, and the symbiosis of orchestra and piano almost eerie, it would be hard to imagine a better reading of this movement. Just listen to its finale, starting with the cadenza at 17:25: there are levels of piano and forte, with whispering horns, that you've never heard before.

The smooth Adagio un poco moto is an abundance of good ideas, solo strings opening with the plaintive tune, yearning for something and answered by the piano's long, involved melody. The whole movement is a crystal-clear, nocturne-like piece that, abruptly and gently, disappears at 7:50 for a 15-second pianissimo bridge to the spectacular final Rondo: Allegro. Here, soloist, conductor, and orchestra give the impression that they have been working up to this moment, so grand is the opening statement, so rich the partnership, so full of oomph the dancing passages—stomping, but less like peasants than victors—and so tender and aware of the beauty in the quieter passages.

The recording is superb, with the soloist front and center but never artificially; moments when the orchestra is at its loudest and the piano is vaguely buried are few, and even then, those are times when piano is being used as another part of the band. I won't compare this set to any others on the market—it would take forever, and what's the point? This is playing with temperament but without ego; accompanying as part of the whole, rather than with different ideas or something to prove. Simply great.—Robert Levine