Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 (Leonskaja, Pizarro, Zhang)

Elisabeth Leonskaja's new Beethoven concerto disc, plus Artur Pizarro and Hauchen Zhang

Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 (Leonskaja, Pizarro, Zhang)

Elisabeth Leonskaja is one of the great living pianists. Her interpretations exude the highest integrity - Beethoven has been relatively low-visibility in her discography, though, although a perforance of the Op. 109 Sonata at the Wigmore Hall in January 2017 was revelatory.

This disc is revelatory, too, with an alchemical combination between Leonskaja and conductor Tughan Sokhiev and his Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse. These performances originated in concerts given in Toulouse, France, in 2018.

The first movement of the Fourth Concerto is unhurried but far from monochromatic; instead, Leonskaja creates a multitude of hues all held within that wondrous Beethovenian G-Major (YouTube video of first movement). She plays the first cadenza by Beethoven (there are three) with a playfulness that is utterly remarkable. This is less about show, more about prolongation and meditation on mood.

The slow movement’s dialogue between solo instrument and orchestra is spellbindingly done; but it is the hushed end, and the contrast with the white-heat of the finale, that impresses the most.

Here's the Mezzo webcast of the actual concert for No. 4.

There are also a couple of new entrants in the Beethoven piano concertos field that are relevant here:

Artur Pizarro rolls the first chord of the first movement. His piano is superb - it is a Fabbrini Bechstein (interesting in itself as I for one associate Fbbrini with Steinway), and his opening paves the way to a brisk Allegro moderato (more allegro sans moderato). I do like the piano sound more than the orchestral balance, and the Wuppertal orchestra is less disciplined than that from Toulouse (YouTube link). Pizarro also plays the first cadenza in the first movement, although I find Leonskaja in the final analysis that bit more convincing. Pizarro's slow movement, though, is as hypnotising, if not more so, than Leonskaja's, and Julia Jones has full command of her Wuppertal orchestra, offering opposition and softening. It has to be said, too, that Pizarro offers some playing in the finale of the very, very highest technical level, texures perfectly articulated and clarified. Any student of piano technique needs to hear this. Pizarro's staccato in the cadenza is wonderful, as are his 'chasing' scales. If Pizarrro and Jones offer a less satisfying Beethoven Fourth on a global level than Leonskaja and Sokhiev, they nevertheless bring a shole sheaf of goodies to the table.

The other recent entrant in the field is another complete set, Hauchen Zhang (winnr of the Cliburn Gold Medal in 2008) with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Nathalue Stutzmann on BIS, and this is, like the Pizarro, a complete set. This is clearly a performance that aims to take on the lessons of period performance, if on modern instruments. Brisk and to the point, there is much to enjoy, but sometimes it feels as if Zhang and Stutzmann don't give the music enough space. Again, Zhang plays the first cadenza, his way perhaps surprisingly expansive and loving:

Personally, I find Huang's second movement rather too indulgent;

Great to hear the string opening of the finale so on-point though from the Philadelphians, and this faster music clearly suits Huang well:

‌... but out of the three under consideration here, this is the least persuasive Beethoven Fourth. Huang's finale cadenza is neat and tidy, but seems rather superficial to my ears.

And so to the Third Concerto (to take the concertos in order of performance on the Leonskaja disc). Unlike the pronounced lyricism of the Fourth, here we are in Beethoven's favourite key of C-Minor (think the Fifth Symphony, or the Piano Trio Op. 1/3, or the Pathétique Piano Sonata). The Toulouse orchestra seems to downplay the dynamism of the opening tutti in the first movement somewhat which actually turns out to be in harmony with Leonskaja's conception. She plays, of course, Beethoven's own cadenza, with a beautiful sense of architcture, the high point of her first movement ... the slow movement (a Largo) is a dream, with superb woodwinf contributions from the Toulouse orchestra players; but the finale is Leonskaja's crowing glory, perfectly judged in terms of lightness of touch yet inperious in those C-Minor arpeggiations.

Moving back over to Wuppertal and Pizarro/Jones, thhe first movement orchestral exposition finds Julia Jones directing her players in a perfectly driven account. She sets the scene perfectly for Pizarro's entrance - he is eloquence personified and again his technique is simply excetptional. There are no energy sags that can afflict this movement either - al is perfectly judged. The Wuppertal players are nicely pointed in their contributions too, while the piano's cadenza is one of the finest on record. Pizarro's trills are impeccable, and on the Fabbrini Bechstein they are positively bejeweled. The F-Minor triplet section is strong but not runaway (remember Pollini's fire-hot section in his VPO/Böhm recording on DG), the treble/bass dialogue with a double-trill in the middle is just that - a proper dialogue between two voices.

Interestingly, Pizarro's opening statement in the Largo is freshly considered, with some wonderfully-weighted staccato; Jones' orchestral reply is a superb response, gracious, nicely balanced (a reedy bassoon peeking through the bass line). Orcestral double (treble?) dotting emphasised their strength before the piano's lon, downward soliloquy, a remarkable moment in the concerto and well done here (although I will necer forget a performance by Alfred Brendel with the Hallé Orchestra - Charles Groves, I think it was, conducting - in which Brendel took that passage down to an absolute whisper). Pizarro and Jones' finale is positively incendiary. No mere jaunty  rondo close, thsi is Beethoven on fire - the .lyrical contrast are not just expected, they are, here, required.

And so we come to Zhang and Stutzmann's Third. After Pizarro and Jones, the orchestral opening seems somewhat subdued. Neither is the whopping great ritardando (slowing down) before the second subject attractive, it just sounds forced. Zhang's playing is fine, though, if not memorable given the competition he faces in this concerto, while his cadenza serves to remind us that this is not the finest music Beethoven ever composed (in contrast, Pizarro's championship makes it fit perfectly):

The Philhadelphia Orchestra is a delight in the second movement; Zhang perhaps less insie the music as eitehr Leonskaja or Pizarro. The finale is better, artiulation bright, the coda a fine summation:

So, Leonskaja offers the finest overall here, although I do look forward to hearing the Pizarro in toto, and will report in due course. I do admit something of a disappointment for the Zhang, so it will be interesting to see what he remaining concertos bring ....