BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor”; Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor- Christoph Eschenbach, piano/ Boston Sym, Orch./ Seiji Ozawa/ London Sym. Orch./ Hans Werner Henze – PentaTone

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37 – Christoph Eschenbach, piano/ Boston Sym, Orch./ Seiji Ozawa/ London Sym. Orch./ Hans Werner Henze (Op. 37) – PentaTone multichanel SACD PTC 5186 201, 78:28 (4/14/15)  [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

Christoph Eschenbach (b. 1940) inscribed the two Beethoven concertos in the mid-1970s, here remastered for 4.0 channel surround-sound in 2014. The October 1973 interpretation of the 1809 Emperor finds Ozawa in particularly fine fettle, urging his strings and brass with hasty but controlled energy. Eschenbach had inscribed the C Major Concerto with Karajan for DGG, and his capacity for brilliant, swashbuckling filigree tempered by the poetic visionary had already proved itself. Here, the demand of leaps, scales, octave passages, and iridescent trills seems not to tax any of Eschenbach’s digital skills, thereby executing the broad sweep of the first movement with startling, clear panache.  In the recapitulation, the dialogue between the BSO French horn and Eschenbach’s rounded arpeggios quite satisfies our expectation of exalted introspection. The remastering process has increased our sense of the BSO wind section, whose resonance provides a delicate color intimacy in the midst of so many bold gestures in this movement. The alla musette character of Eschenbach’s open chords prior to the extended coda enjoy a bristling elegance equaled by the coda proper.

Ozawa and Eschenbach take Beethoven’s designation for the Adagio un poco mosso quite literally, a moment of extended poise and repose between two fiery outer movements. The theme and variations proceed in a stately, staid but lucid series of colors, insistent on the strength and clarity of Eschenbach’s trill and rolling arpeggios. The soft tissue in the BSO woodwinds lulls ineluctably into that fateful drop of a half-step prior to the onrush of the Rondo-Allegro finale. If we had ignored the presence of the BSO tympani before, we certainly become aware of his virtuosity now, complemented by the BSO trumpets. So, too, the bassoon adds to the color panoply as the music surges forward. The fine gradations of tempo between the various appearances of the ritornello theme and keyboard’s passing variants compel repeated hearings of this gorgeous amalgam of sound, a veritable symphony with piano obbligato.  The balance between bravura mechanics and the sense of an ongoing improvisation continues to dazzle us in performance, whose colors have been thoroughly refreshed.

For the dramatic 1800 C Minor Concerto, we have the rare appearance of composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) at the podium of the London Symphony Orchestra. Henze had dedicated his own Concerto No. 2 to Christoph Eschenbsch in 1967.  But from the opening introduction to the Allegro con brio, we face a literalist performance that rarely permits anything like inspired exultation in its vision. Too often, the conductor’s contribution seems metronomic and contrived, perhaps in Henze’s effort to reveal the pure architecture of the first movement. Rather, Eschenbach’s keyboard part attempts to imbue a poetic and muscular contour that the orchestral tissue sorely lacks. While the LSO woodwinds excel in beauty of tone, a metallic timbre intrudes on some of Eschenbach’s already-steely patina.  The principals set a lugubrious tempo for the E Major Largo, and the slow pace barely maintains the elastic thread of the melody. What saves the movement remains with the extraordinary wind playing from the LSO. The Rondo (Allegro), however, revivifies the quality of the collaboration, with Henze quite alert in the contrapuntal episode. Eschenbach and the LSO flute and tympani section colloquy with vivid authority in the closing pages, which bristle with the excitement we had hoped for much earlier in this reading.

Excellent surround sonics from this remastered 1973 four-channel recording. Maybe proving that the center and sub channels really aren’t that important for music – only for recent movies.

—Gary Lemco

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