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Triple Concerto / Fantaisie Chorale
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PERLMAN / MA / BARENBOIM / BER
Le Triple concerto pour piano, violon et violoncelle est une oeuvre majeure de Beethoven. Le compositeur relève ici le défi de sortir de la forme concertante classique à un seul soliste pour opposer un trio de solistes à un orchestre symphonique. La force qui se dégage de cette opposition unique est formidable. L'orchestre doit être mené avec une extrême lisibilité afin de laisser les trois solistes s'exprimer sans risquer la saturation. Tout le monde arrivera à bon port en privilégiant le dialogue à la puissance. --Pierre Graveleau
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La fantaisie, souvent chantée par les chorales d'amateurs (je l'ai chantée) est ici magistrale.
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First, though, a few words about the Triple Concerto. It is easy to see why most reviewers have principally addressed this work. It is a remarkably fine piece of music, impressively and beautifully performed by some of the most talented and celebrated artists of our age. It is hard to speak of Perlman, Ma, or Barenboim in anything but superlatives, and that holds true for the Berlin Philharmonic, as well. The recorded sound is outstanding: vibrant, clear, well-balanced, full-dimensioned, and sensuous. And if the rigorous control of a studio recording is given up in this live concert performance, it seems more than compensated for by the contagious enthusiasm of an admiring audience. The applause at the end is fitting and adds a touch of realism to the recorded experience. (It has to be conceded, though, that no actual seat in the house could offer the closeup detail which the recording engineers, with their skilled use of microphones and mixers, provide us.)
In sum, the Triple Concerto is most handsomely served here. The effect is almost that of a chamber trio with orchestral accompaniment, and like good chamber music players, the three soloists take care not to step on each other's lines, assuming the lead when appropriate and yielding up the spotlight when their turn is over. (Obviously the three, in addition to their solo performances, have had substantial experience playing chamber music.)
As to the Choral Fantasy, in my opinion we have here one of the very best available recordings. In addition to being a top musical artist in general and an extraordinary pianist in particular, Barenboim is also one of the leading Beethoven interpreters of the day. For its part, the venerable Berlin Philharmonic has, from the time of Nikisch, imposed a soloist level of performing artistry upon each of its members, and, since the days of Furtwaengler, developed a special relationship with the music of Beethoven. (The vocal soloists and chorus live up to this standard, as well.) Add to this interpretive authority and performing excellence the high caliber of EMI sound engineering, and you're almost guaranteed a brilliant result.
The composition itself is well thought out and full of excellent writing, the product of mature genius. Though its debut in 1808 was something of a catastrophe, owing to last-minute completion and consequent lack of adequate rehearsal (Beethoven's piano part had not yet even been written out), it was all very carefully re-worked before its publication in 1810. Formally the piece has two movements: Adagio and Finale, but there are altogether seven or so segments with various tempo and style indications. Lasting about 20 minutes altogether, the piece begins with a 4-minute piano introduction and ends with about 4 minutes of combined chorus, orchestra and piano. The intervening 12 minutes or so constitute a dialogue between solo piano and orchestra.
The Fantasy is perhaps unique among Beethoven's works in its obvious emphasis upon unabashed showmanship. It was, from the beginning, intended as a brilliant finale to a long evening of Beethoven's music--both his compositions and his personal performance at the keyboard (and his conducting, too). And though the work has been criticized for its "oddball" format and its presumed artistic shallowness, the fact is that the music has survived for 199 years and shows no signs of being abandoned any time soon. Indeed, it remains a great source of musical excitement and enjoyment, and a favorite of such musical greats as Rudolf Serkin and Daniel Barenboim, both of whom have recorded it multiple times.
In choosing my favorite recordings I have kept in mind the showpiece character of the music, and its growing excitement and brilliance as it comes to a close. Two features in particular add special drama to the coda: the strategically repeated rising scales of triplet thirds with octaves played by the piano and sounding like fireworks blasting off into the sky; and the sudden powerful interjection of a foreign E-flat major chord as the chorus repeats the words "und Kraft" (and power) and then triumphantly forces its resolution back to a grand C major. When these features are well executed the piece takes on an excitement which drives almost inexorably toward an exultantly satisfying ending.
In this recording both features come off pretty well, although the rising piano scales could be better spotlighted and could be more crisply articulated. The E-flat chord is properly strong and grows in intensity as it presses forward to its C major resolution. So I'd give this performance about 1.6 out of 2 on this issue.
By way of comparison, the old Walter Klien performance with the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Jerzy Semkow (a Vox disk no longer in print) gets the full two points: Klien plays the scales with an almost trip-hammer articulation which seizes the ear with its dramatic intensity. The E-flat chord and its resolution are likewise given the powerful treatment which adds so much to the brilliance of the ending. (The Klien disk, though recorded in the 1960s, holds up well on all counts and sounds very good indeed!)
A third fine performance is that of Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt on the Warner Classics label. Aimard's playing is big, powerful, and virtuosic, and the orchestra and chorus (Arnold Schoenberg Chor) are equally fine. On the two features cited above, this recording gets about 1.6 points: the piano scales are crisply articulated, nearly as electrifying as Klien's, but a bit less prominently highlighted. The E-flat chord is strong enough, and the following C major chord is, as well, but there is no growth in intensity as the chord is driven toward its resolution. (To be sure, Beethoven does not indicate a crescendo on the E-flat chord, but instinct suggests that it should be there, and most conductors seem to call for it.) With the above proviso, I still find this recording to be very satisfying overall, leaving little to be desired, with very fine sound and excellent playing.
No discussion of the Choral Fantasy could be complete without mentioning Rudolf Serkin, who harbored a special fondness for it and liked to play it as the closing piece on the final concert of each season of the Marlboro Festival, a rousing ending to the summer's musical activities. Of my in-print Serkin recordings--one at Marlboro on Sony and the other on Telarc--I prefer the latter, a studio recording with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Although he was 79 at the time of the recording (in 1982) Serkin shows few pianistic deficiencies, and offers up a fully satisfying performance, as do the orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival chorus. On the two showmanship features mentioned above, this recording scores about 1.6, as well. The piano scales are smoothly played and quite well highlighted, but are not so crisply articulated as they might be; the E-flat chord, however, swells very powerfully to its grand resolution. This is thus a very fine recording, with the special quality of the piece's personal relationship to Serkin. The sound is very good, without audience noise, and, in keeping with Telarc's philosophy, the engineers employ only a single stereo pair of microphones and eschew any compression, limiting, or equalization. This results in a quite realistic reconstruction of what one might actually hear in the concert hall, but gives up the ability to focus in on the soloist or a particular section of the orchestra or chorus. (If you can find the out-of-print 1962 recording with the NY Philharmonic under Bernstein, it is worth having: here the 59-year-old Serkin attacks the Fantasy with daredevil élan, playing the opening piano solo in under 3 minutes! Though a finger may occasionally go slightly amiss in this enthusiasm, the bravura of it all really grabs you. And Bernstein, himself a talented pianist, provides excellent direction.)
Two Choral Fantasy recordings which I don't personally prefer are (1) the 1977 Philips disk of Alfred Brendel with the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir under Bernard Haitink and (2) the Newport Classics disk with Anthony Newman and Philomusica Antiqua, London, under Stephen Simon. The first of these seems to me quite lackluster overall, with not particularly inspired performances by soloist, choir, or orchestra and less than brilliant conducting. The second may be great for purists or fans of period re-creations, but I find the old pianoforte's sound too dry and tinkly for ears accustomed to modern Steinways or Boesendorfers. (And I'm convinced that if Beethoven had access to a modern piano, with its superior power, expressiveness, richness of tone, and sustaining ability, he would have abandoned the pianoforte entirely.)
In summary, as to the Choral Fantasy, the Barenboim/Berlin is an excellent recording, with authoritative performances and especially satisfying sound quality. It clearly merits 5 stars. For an older, but very fine and exciting performance, seek out the Klien/St. Louis version (which will likely be a used copy). The Aimard/Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording features both excellent sound and very fine performances, as does the Serkin/Boston version, with a less closely focussed sound perspective.
The Triple Concerto on this Perlman/Ma/Barenboim/Berlin disk is outstanding and merits 5 stars, as well.
Thirty some years on, the orchestra doesn't have the richness and depth of Karajan's BPO, but it still sounds very good, and Barenboim does a credible job of conducitng from the keyboard. The three soloists are also top-notch in eery movement. Yo-Yo Ma prefers a slender, elegant tone in this work compared to the tremendous Rostropovich, and Perlman doesn't attack with the total authority of Oistrakh. Barneboim, however, has a heroic view of the piano part, as did Richter, and he's the engine that keeps this performance going.
Despite a cool opening, and a disappointing entrance by Ma, who doesn't sail into the main theme with enough passion, the performance builds as it goes along. By the middle of the first movement we get real thrills--ideally, the three soloists should be pushing each other out of the way to get our attention. Here they don't quite, but Barenboim keeps up the intensity nicely.
Some listeners may see the Triple Concerto in unheroic terms, in which case there are readings led by Fricsay on DG and the Argerich-Capucon-Maisky live performance on EMI. Barenboim's(also live) is larger in scale, although I regret that the slow movement isn't quite ardent enough. Because the cello introduces all three movements, Ma's low-key playing sets the tone. He starts the finale off on tip-toe, but once again Barenboim manages to bring us back into Beethoven's world. All in all, this new performance knocks on the door of the great one.
The filler is the Choral Fantasy, which Barenboim recorded as a young man with the aging Otto Klmeperer. His new version is unique, so far as I know, in being conducted from the keyboard. As a pianist, Barenboim had a moe exuberant style in the past, but he's a bit more reserved here. The reading overall doesn't touch the galvanic excitement of Serkin/Bernstein on Sony, but with gorgeous orchestral playing, Barenboim's confidence as pianist, and an excellent chorus for the joyful ending, this Choral Fantasy ranks just a notch below the Triple Concerto.