BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor & No. 4 in G Major – Mario Joao Pires, p./ Swedish Radio Sym. Orch./ Daniel Harding – Onyx

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 – Mario Joao Pires, piano/ Swedish Radio Sym. Orch./ Daniel Harding – Onyx 4125, 71:30 (8/12/14)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Recorded 9-11 October 2013, the collaboration of Maria Joao Pires and Daniel Harding in the C Minor and G Major Beethoven Concertos means to pay tribute to the late conductor Claudio Abbado (1955-2014) by way of Dionysos and Apollo. The dramatic C Minor Concerto (1802), much based on Beethoven’s appreciation of the Mozart Concerto No. 24, announces its serious intent, Allegro con brio, which includes the exploitation of the keyboard’s range up to a high G, which in Beethoven’s time marked a new range of expression. From Pires’ double octaves we receive the momentous main theme, soon answered by Harding’s responsive strings and winds, including sweet clarinets for the secondary theme in the major. Despite the forceful interplay of dark and light, Pires and Harding do manage a sense of intimacy in their reading, much reminiscent of the Haskil/Markevitch inscription of this work. Prior to her potent cadenza, the tympani from the Swedish Radio Orchestra insists on its presence, returning once more to mark the striking coda of this seminal opus.

Pires virtually strums the keyboard for the E Major Largo movement, while colors from the flute, plucked strings, horn and bassoon add to the lyric occasion. The movement projects a muted intimacy, colored by melancholy and nostalgia. After the abbreviated cadenza, the music assumes a crepuscular hue of serene pianissimo. Yet a sudden fortissimo concludes the movement and launches us into the Rondo: Allegro which indulges a tonic bi-polarity, dancing in gypsy style between C Minor and C Major. Pires’ jaunty keyboard flourishes once more find their complement in the winds –especially the clarinet and bassoon – and tympani, even moving to a well-punctuated fughetta, cleanly articulated by Harding. Beethoven will emulate Mozart’s gambit of switching to a 6/8 form of the ritornello as a coda, the tympani well met. An immaculate, Classical poise has marked this often ferociously driven work, here rendered with a strong sense of architecture.

For the 1806 G Major Concerto Apollo rules, especially in the multifarious triplet figures Pires must engage in the course of the Aeolian harp first movement Allegro moderato. The irony of the rhythmic pulse, almost a parody of its dark-side Fifth Symphony, seems to reconcile the opposing tendencies in its own nature, lyrical and imperious. Pires’ pearly play factors into the mercurial, diaphanous textures in the development, with the winds’ obsessiveness in their ostinato rhythmic pattern. Beethoven had been known to perform the movement with blistering haste, perhaps sacrificing its melodic charm. No such effect applies here, as Pires and Harding weave as sumptuous a line as we ever heard. The cadenza spins out a silver sheen, whose rolling arpeggios and “percussive” motto chords have all softened into a kind of sonic veil, held by an extended trill. The coda triumphs without gloating.

Harding wants a dry, sec pungeny for his staccato chords that accompany Pires in her excursion for through the mystery of the Andante con moto, forever likened to Orpheus’ subduing of the Furies in Hades. The pedal point from Pires moves the music to E Minor before the fateful modulation to C in the context of a G Major Rondo: Vivace. The wrath of the gods having been placated, the Rondo sings and bristles with vigor, a martial energy that often parallels the rhythm of the first movement. Harding’s tympani seems to challenge Pires’ keyboard to dispel the aggression with its harp capacities, a permutation of the middle movement aesthetic.  The clarity of the recorded sound – courtesy of Arne Akselberg’s engineering – allows us to savor the play of the piano against the string tone of violin, viola, or cello as Beethoven requires in this, his most “singing” of his five piano concertos.

—Gary Lemco

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