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Friday, May 11, 2012

Ludwig van Beethoven, "Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5"

Ludwig Van Beethoven
"Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5"
Orfeo (2005)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

In one of my least professional and most whiny introductory paragraphs, I must say that Beethoven's "Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5" as performed by Rudolf Serkin was the most painful and difficult recordings yet to find, and I hope nothing surpasses it. I've gotten used to local libraries not carrying albums, and YouTube is not huge on specific classical recordings, but both illegal and even legal forms of download were difficult to find in this case. Good luck finding this one guys.

Oh, but right, the recording: Pretty good if you've got it in you to listen to nearly three hours of concertos in one sitting. Before launching into this recording in particular, a few basics on piano concertos in Beethoven's day: For one thing, three movements was en vogue. The first movement was typically an allegro or at a similar pace, followed by a slower (often darker as well, although not necessarily) second movement, and the third movement recapitulating the themes of the first in finale form.

Moon pays special attention to the latter three concertos, as he should, largely because of the middle movements. He indicates No. 3 as evidence of Beethoven's "mastery of the dark and imposing minor-key music that would dominate his later output." No. 3 is gloomy (and good!) but Nos. 4 and 5 don't share the mood. 4 is in G major and 5 in E-flat major, being split by a slower Andante and Adagio movement respectively, and if they were supposed to sound dark, no one told Serkin.

Beethoven was a masterful pianist, and it's only fair that someone of Serkin's talent take up this task. Serkin was 74 when he recorded these five pieces with the Symphony of the Bavarian Radio. Again, no one told his hands this. Serkin's fleet fingers produce waves upon waves of notes during the Allegro Moderato opening to No. 4, including hints of what would become "Rhapsody in Blue" under the hand of George Gershwin. Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 are more lightweight, but listening to Serkin whip through No. 4 and the instantly recognizable theme of No. 5 makes the claim that Beethoven had lost his playfulness with age seem absurd. No matter how old Eddie Van Halen gets, he's going to play a guitar like Eddie Van Halen. The same applies to Beethoven.

After my complaints about finding this recording, I wouldn't blame you for opting to pass on it, especially as it's nearly three hours of classical music. I'll give you a free pass, considering that the next Beethoven album we'll be looking at is just Concertos Nos. 4 and 5.

INTERESTING FACT: At classical performances back in the day, pianists had assistants turn the pages of the sheet music for them. Beethoven had his friend Ignaz van Seyfried turning pages for him during the debut of No. 3, but the latter claimed it was just for show. He said that Beethoven only had Egyptian hieroglyphics drawn on the pages, which apparently served as mental reminders as to what was coming next.

"Piano Concerto No. 4" (note: This is not the performance featured on the recording, but it is Serkin playing the piano so I went with it. Sorry.)

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