BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor” – Norman Krieger, piano/ Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/ JoAnn Falletta – Decca DD41154/ 481 5583, 76:00 (7/1/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Norman Krieger and conductor Falletta address two concerto staples by Beethoven.

American pianist Norman Krieger has had an impressive list of scholarly appointments, at the USC Thornton Division and Indiana University, to complement his long concert career. A pupil of luminaries Adele Marcus, Maria Curcio, Alfred Brendel, and Russell Sherman, Krieger brings refinement and a polished technique to the vast repertory at his command, with an emphasis on contemporary composition. The two Beethoven concertos recorded here for Decca derive over a long incubation period: the c minor Concerto from 12 October 2004, and the E-flat Concerto from 25 March 2015.

Aside from the usual, historical aspects of the c minor Concerto—its 1803 inception’s marking the “second period” of the composer’s creative development—the performance brings few “revelations” as such; but the collaboration bears a healthy, vibrant energy, and the blend of keyboard and orchestral ensemble seems intent on producing a luxuriant sonic envelope. Much of Beethoven’s dramatic sense in the first movement Allegro con brio derives almost exactly from Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K. 491, since they share the same C-E-flat-A-flat progression and an uncanny, dark sensibility. Beethoven, of course, adds his own ferocity and canny pauses in the vocal line, with stinging runs and vivid trills that Krieger accomplishes with precision. The ever-effective tympani pulse after the cadenza still inflames the heart even after years of familiarity.

The Largo in E Major receives the participants’ most concentrated and elastic collaboration, with muted strings and gliding arpeggios from Krieger. The movement proceeds in an enchanted aura, finished off by a duet for flute and bassoon that marks the end of a placid, sustained meditation amidst a furor of emotion in the outer movements.  The last movement Rondo enjoys a directness and playful symmetry that moves from the Mozart influence to that of Haydn, with his own penchant for sonata-rondo form that includes moments of strict counterpoint.  The Buffalo wind section—clarinet and oboe—remain alert and sonorous, urging the vocal line along while the strings rise in fluid motion. The fugato having ended, Beethoven proceeds to A-flat for a moment or two of antiphons in strings and keyboard. With the da capo of the rondo theme, the Buffalo brass makes some good points. The modulation to E Major just adds another feather to the shaft of Beethoven’s wit. The flighty coda, with rumbling tympani, has Krieger in after-burner mode, whipping through the virtuosic runs and broken chords with a totally happy finesse. Until the audience began cheering, we might not have realized the performance derived from a live concert.

The 1809 E-flat Concerto retains its power to combine sweeping gestures with minutely tinted aspects of orchestra timbre and intimate coloring. The keyboard part means to be virtuosic and nuanced at once; my old piano literature instructor Jean Casadesus used to delight in testing his class by playing the rondo theme in a series of wrong keys!  The keyboard part no less asks for the instrument’s capacity for singing. Krieger and Falletta take the first movement Allegro at a leisurely pace, enjoying the expansive breadth of the alternate declamations and (self-indulgent) improvisatory asides and ostinati that often bring attention to the range of the composer’s fertile imagination—his love of cascading eighths in the winds—for his instrument of choice.  Falletta’s flute section warrants no faint praise for the luster it imparts to the score. The wild scale pattern that erupts in the development section elicited from George Bernard Shaw, “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare.” The recapitulation asserts the same grandeur that opens the work, with Krieger’s relishing the combination of arpeggios and block chords that signify the imposing might of this Herculean composition, only to be offset by music-box sonorities of the most delicate tenderness. The coda combines girth with a soaring lyricism that quite exceeds anything in the concerto literature.

The B Major Adagio un poco mosso conveys a sublime serenity of spirit, cast as a chorale and variations. Triplets from Krieger lead to a new tune in D Major, but the chorale predominates as the woodwinds collaborate with the keyboard in luminous fabric. Keep your ear posted to Krieger’s progressive, strong trill. Falletta’s French horns establish a sustained pedal point, and the bassoons descend a fateful half step for the Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo. After some groping for a tune by Krieger, the rhythmic kernel of the Rondo lies in its dotted figure that impels the music as a whole. If the visual image suggests a royal hunt, its canvas looms large, with several gracefully, galant asides. The music explores its own series of variants, in which the orchestra serves as a kind of epilogue, but only temporarily. The hunt motif becomes militant, even imperative, and the principals skyrocket into a full, rollicking statement of the ritornello. Eventually, the piano and tympani decrease the intensity, until some surging work from Krieger ignites the final peroration from Falletta and ensemble.  Again, a previously hushed audience reveals its rapturous approval of all that has transpired.

–Gary Lemco