Beethoven challenges pianists Recordings: Virtuosos display their own strengths and styles in the concertos.

Classical Sounds

December 21, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As virtuosos, pianists earn their place in history with performances of the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Liszt. As musicians they are more likely to be judged by the way they play those of Beethoven.

Or so common wisdom tells us -- though there may be more that is common in such belief than is wise. No pianist gives a great performance of a virtuoso concerto without musicality; no one gives a great performance of the technically challenging works of Beethoven without virtuosity.

Nevertheless, intellectually ambitious pianists concerned about their place in history eventually want to match themselves against the five concertos of Beethoven.

As Andras Schiff admits in the liner notes that accompany his new album of the five Beethoven concertos (a three-disc set on Teldec that includes the "Appassionata" Sonata), the Hungarian-born pianist has always been a little uncomfortable with the works of Beethoven. And one senses that discomfort in these recordings, in which Schiff is accompanied by Bernard Haitink and the Dresden State Orchestra.

As might be expected of such a distinguished interpreter of Mozart and Schubert, Schiff is most persuasive in those concertos in which the composer is closest to his classical antecedents and in which the scale of the works is most intimate.

This produces a witty and chamber music-like performance of the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat (the composer's first) and much that is lovely in readings of Concertos Nos. 1 in C major, 3 in C minor and 4 in G major. But even in these three pieces, Schiff's fantastic ability to point up details (which is so successful in his interpretations of Mozart and Schubert) inhibits his ability to create a big line -- and that's an absolute necessity in Beethoven.

This lack of a bigness of conception makes his Concerto No. 5 (the so-called "Emperor") the least successful performance in the set. This is one of the least imperial "Emperors" ever recorded by -- as Schiff certainly is -- a genuinely great pianist.

A much more imperial "Emperor" comes from young Evgeny Kissin (coupled with a performance of the B-flat concerto on Sony Classical with James Levine conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra). Like Schiff, Kissin (who recorded these pieces last spring at the age of 25) has been hesitant to approach Beethoven. In concert, he currently performs only these two concertos and the composer's "Moonlight" Sonata.

But this is one of the best "Emperors" in recent years. It is big without banging, bold without being impudent and fearless without eschewing sensitivity to the composer's lyricism (especially in the hushed, Elysian Fields-like serenity of the slow movement).

The early B-flat concerto is also beautifully played -- it is actually more delicately charming and graceful in its observation of classical decorum than Schiff's account.

If Kissin's performance of the B-flat concerto can be faulted, it is only for his being a little too scrupulous in using his remarkable technical prowess in the service of the music without drawing attention to himself. What the Russian may have momentarily forgotten is that the young Beethoven -- who was about Kissin's age when he completed the B-flat concerto -- designed it as a vehicle in which he could dazzle Vienna's clavier-crazy audiences.

A pianist who captured the taut drive of this piece, performing it with unashamedly spectacular bravura that permits us to hear the flamboyant showmanship with which Beethoven conquered Vienna, was William Kapell.

In his short life (1922-53), Kapell made pitiably few recordings, and he has not been well-served by BMG Classics, which currently offers only one CD containing the studio recordings of the man who remains the greatest pianist this country has ever produced.

Fortunately, Pearl (a small British label that specializes in historical reissues) has turned its attention to Kapell.

Its most recent Kapell release features Kapell's great 1946 recording of Beethoven's B-flat Concerto (with Vladimir Golschmann conducting the NBC Symphony), along with the pianist's celebrated recording of the Khachaturian Concerto (with Serge Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony), as well as shorter pieces by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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