Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Ludwig van Beethoven’s collection of five concertos for piano and orchestra was composed over a period of nearly 20 years (1788-1809) and all but the final work were premiered with the composer at the piano. There are numerous complete sets of these landmark works and many major pianists of the 20th century have recorded them at least once but a fresh look at these masterpieces like that presented by this new recording is always welcome.The five Beethoven concertos provide a unique set of stylistic challenges as they bridge the transition from the mature classical period of Mozart and Haydn to the early romantic era that Beethoven had propelled into the 19th-century music scene.
Disc 1. Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. There are clear echoes of Mozart in the two outer allegro movements that surround the ethereal largo but one already hears in the cadenzas a freer spirit that foreshadows the later Beethoven piano sonatas.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19. Composition of this concerto was actually begun before its predecessor and took several more years to reach its final form. The three movements—fast-slow-fast—are definitely Mozartean in their structure and the interplay between piano and orchestra still harkens back to the waning days of the classical period.
Disc 2. Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. This concerto was a game-changer for the piano literature, not only of its times but for nearly all of the romantic concertos that would follow Beethoven to the many Romantic period composers that succeeded him. The work’s rondo-finale is a bravura movement that challenges not only the soloist but the orchestra’s ability to keep pace.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58. The first movement’s sustained solo piano opening suggests that the audience is in for something very special that is carried forward by a beautiful second movement and a high-octane rondo-vivace finale.
Disc 3. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major “Emperor,” Op. 73. This concerto is like no other in this set for its use of the piano which sometime is an outspoken solo voice and, at other times, as a harbinger that introduces new themes continually holding the audience in thrall.
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. An introduction to Beethoven’s only and rarely performed ballet score.
The meeting of Garrick Ohlsson and the forces led by Donald Runnicles at the Grand Teton Music Festival is one of those fortuitous occasions when all of the stars align. Ohlsson is a world-renowned solo artist and has recorded the complete Beethoven concertos once before in a live 1998 Bellingham Festival performances but this seamless integration of his piano and the Runnicles-led orchestra is in an entirely league. Now, Ohlsson is given a group of superior orchestral players in the GTMFO—an assembly of first-chair performers from other major symphony orchestras. Maestro Runnicles is well known for his work in the opera house and the analogy of treating a piano soloist like a lead singer works wonders for this collection. Rather than shining the spotlight on Ohlsson’s obvious virtuosity, these performances of the Beethoven piano concertos becomes a meeting of peers and it is this collaboration that raises the performance levels of all those involved. The brief Overture to Beethoven’s only ballet closes out this magnificent set and receives a lively account by Runnicles and company that makes one wish to hear more of this infrequently performed work
This set provides three different audio formats: a Red Book CD, and 2.0 and 5.0 SACD layers. To get the full impact of these performances recorded live in July 2022, the last version will give listeners a choice center mid-orchestra seat in the Walk Festival Hall. In the program booklet, recording producer Victor Muenzer lists the types and locations of microphones employed by recording engineer Kevin Harbison for both two- and five-channel versions. The result is a perfectly balanced recording in which the piano soloist and the orchestral players occupy the same soundstage as would be heard in a live performance. All versions have the natural unadulterated warmth that live music conveys and, on that basis alone, are demonstration quality recordings.
- A 28-page program booklet with informative essays about the works being played and contributions by the soloist, conductor and record producer.
The Final Assessment
I have a number of complete sets of the Beethoven piano concertos with top-notch soloists and symphony orchestras. Considering the level of performance and the audio quality of this newest recording, it belongs at the top of that impressive list. Highest recommendation.
The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos is out on SACD and high resolution digital from Reference Recordings.
- Label: Reference Recordings
- Artists: Garrick Ohlsson (Piano) | Donald Runnicles (Conductor)
- Producer: Victor Muenzer
- Run Time: 186 Mins.
- Street Date: 12 May 2023
- Audio Format: CD | SACD 2.0 and 5.0