Beethoven's five numbered piano concertos are core repertoire for any pianist. Many leave some time before setting their readings down for posterity, and one such is the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, whho has been recording for Chandos for some time now (including a highly significant Debussy series). He has opted for the lean, punchy sound of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra as collaborators, directing all five from the piano (no mean feat - most pianists, if they do direct, would opt for the first two); he is not unique in this, but cerianly in a small minority.
The first two Concertos are early pieces, and clearly the work of a young Beethoven. They also hold an anomaly: the Second was composed first (and so, for the alert among you, the Second was composed first). That's to do with the order in which they were published, not written, and the numbering has stuck. They are both great works, but there's something about the freshness of the Second that, when you find that out, feels like a penny dropping. And that's also why Bavouzet places the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19, first in the running order of his set. It is a performance of utter joy, Bavouzet's fingerwork a miracle.
The First Concerto poses the thorny question of which of Beethoven's three cadenzas should the pianist pick? Bavouzet, rightly in my opinion, offers the third - the longest and meatiest:
The almost symphoinc breadth of the slow movement is magnificent (as are the wind soloists from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, particularly the clarinet).
The Third Concerto presents Beethoven in his favourite key of C minor (remember it's the key of the Fifth Symphony: see Classical Explorer's very first post, Teodor Currentzis and his Musica Aeterna orchestra). Bavouzet plays Beethoven's own cadenza (which almost everyone does). There's a stream of thought (and I usually agree with it) that the cadenza is the weakest Beehoven in the piece; Bavouzet convinces me otherwise (the only other pianist to convince me was Pollini in his first recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Böhm). With a slow movement characterised by the spirit of chamber music and a vivid finale, this is a significant recording.
When it comes to the Fourth, we're in the rather more gentle key of G major. With this rather more gentle piece situated between the two more forthright poles of the dynamic C minor Concerto and the grandeur of the "Emperor," we get a clue as to when successful cycles of the Beethoven concertos are a challenge: what with the vigour and youth of the first two (themselves differing beasts) and the changing landscape of Nos. 3-5, a pianist able to project the various facets of each is required. Bavouzet has this, as well as the intellect to find space in the first movement fo the Fourth and yet not lose a sense of structure (he plays the first of Beethoven's two cadenzas):
The "Emperor" is a unique, lean performance. Using a chamber orchestra means detail is paramount; and, astonisingly, there is no loss of ensemble even though Bavouzet directs from the keyboard. The long first movement comes across superbly; the command in the slow movement is transcendent, while the finale is more varied terrain than most. One of the most rewarding "Emperor"s of recent years, beyond doubt.
The Swedish Chamber Orchestra is on top form in his set (we previously covered their Brahms Fourth Symphony on BIS on Classical Explorer). The knife-edge of pianist-directed performance seems to bring out the very best in them.
Bavouzet opts for Beethoven's wonderful Quintet for Piano and Winds as a filler. It's a delightful work, and if you don't know it there is a classic account I can share here with you: Colin Horsley with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble (Dennis Brain, horn; Cecil James, bassoon; Stephen Waters, clarinet; and Leonard Brain, oboe):
A magnificent set; one to cherish.