BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Concertos – Evgeny Kissin, piano – London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Colin Davis – EMI Classics 50999 2 06311 2 3, 3 Red Book CDs, 179 min. **** [Distr. by EMI]:

When the young Beethoven arrived in Vienna at age 22 at Haydn’s invitation, he already had sketches in place for his early piano concertos. His reputation as a virtuoso pianist already preceded him, but there were many pianists in Vienna who were determined to put Beethoven in his place. One of them, the Abbé Joseph Gelinek, challenged Beethoven to what was essentially a duel on the piano. He remarked afterward to Carl Czerny (Beethoven’s longtime pupil) that Beethoven “improvised on a theme I’d given him as I have never heard Mozart himself improvise,” and that Beethoven “displayed difficulties and effects on the piano beyond anything of which we might have dreamed.” Czerny was also noted to marvel at Beethoven’s nearly superhuman sight-reading of difficult texts. A page-turner who was employed for the premiere of the Third Piano Concerto remarked that he was terrified by the experience, and that the printed page contained very little outside of “Egyptian hieroglyphs!”

This three-disc set represents Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin’s first complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos. He’s developed this reputation of being this nearly soulless machine – a model of steely Russian perfection, never missing a note, and perhaps a perfect match for the demanding and challenging concertos of Beethoven. The ongoing rap on Kissin is that, while he’s this astonishing technician – who undoubtedly has the requisite keyboard prowess for Beethoven performance, his playing never quite gets to the heart of the music. I couldn’t have found anything further from the truth in this magnificent collection, and while Kissin’s playing is indeed quite muscular – with an abundance of the necessary bravura clearly in evidence – I also was quite moved by the lyrical quality that he exhibited throughout. Sir Colin Davis and the LSO, with multiple forays into this literature under their belts, offer superb accompaniment that melds quite nicely with Kissin’s occasional quirkiness.

The sound quality here is magnificent, and EMI’s Abbey Road Studio offers the warmth and splendid acoustics that the famed venue is renowned for. Kissin’s piano sounds remarkably realistic, and doesn’t dominate the orchestra, as is all too often the case with concerto recordings. The impact of the orchestral climaxes is little short of breathtaking, and proves that the best of Red Book CD can still go toe to toe with higher-resolution media. While this disc may not replace more classic choices of pianist and orchestra as the absolute reference, it nonetheless can at least challenge them on the basis of the disc’s near-reference sound quality. Very highly recommended!

— Tom Gibbs