BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; Choral Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 – Philippe Entremont, piano/Choeur de l’ORTF/Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon
Cascavelle VEL 3132, 62:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) did not maintain a particular distinction in the music of Beethoven, but he inaugurated a complete cycle of the composer in 1970 for the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, featuring the French piano virtuoso Philippe Entremont (b. 1934). Their rendition of the Emperor Concerto (11 February 1970) will bring several delights to those who appreciate canny tonal color and occasional whirlwind velocity in this concerto, with keen attention to the colossal interplay between keyboard and tympani and the light fluttery sound in the ORTF strings. Entremont, a pupil of Marguerite Long and Jean Doyen, added a decidedly sensuous athletic palette to the chaste French school of pianism, a more erotic Robert Casadesus. Lovely riffs in the first movement between Entemont’s stunning runs and roulades against the ORTF French horn and then the pizzicato strings. Though not as shiny and polished as Michelangeli could be in this suave concerto, the palpable affection and rhythmic sympathy of the pianist and conductor permeates every bar, the forward momentum inexorable yet still expansive in the more meditative passages. The quasi cadenza of the first movement enjoys a muscular panache that dissolves into pearly trills and studied music-box dainties. The French horn and plucked strings pick up the musical line and accelerate to a gloriously nuanced set of potent chords in the tonic that mark an abiding love for Beethoven’s personal heraldry.
A serenely graduated theme-and-variations Adagio allows Entremont all degrees of cantabile lyricism, tasteful, refined, and elegantly detailed, the detached chords stunning in their resonance. A long silken modulated trill extends the pulsation forward, the melody rising in stature and calm nobility. The fateful drop of a half-tone invokes the rush to the Rondo, a sunny excursion con brio, the tympani once more inspired to mark the beat with fervent strokes. Entremont now relaxes the tension and introduces a degree of schwung that propels the almost mischievous figures in lithe dancing. The series of variants glitters in ecstatic security, the horns and woodwinds militant in support of the elegant roulades from Entremont, Martinon now overtly aggressive in his ministrations. The ritornello cavorts and leaps, shudders in its own heated energy, and moves to that combination of improvisation and studied harmony that defines this concerto as an ultimate concerted statement of the composer’s fecund imagination, playful and exalted at once.
Darius Milhaud once called Beethoven’s 1808 Choral Fantasy “that most curious work,” though Beethoven himself professed an affection for it, acknowledging its kinship with the 1824 Ninth Symphony. Improvisation and rigorous command of variegated forces display themselves in fertile combination, and the piece has consistently commanded my listening: from my first encounter by Andor Foldes and Fritz Lehmann to the more demonstrative efforts and Rudolf Serkin and John Lill; and now, this version for the Beethoven bicentennial (2 December 1970, almost in time for the composer’s birthday on December 16. Some lovely moments include the flute solo over punctuated chords from Entremont, the chamber music crescendo of the statement of the main theme, and the “Lieb” and “Kraft” that will later echo in the Ninth Symphony’s demand that the lover of Mankind dwell above the stars in the heavens. High gloss, meditative thoughtfulness, and resilient energy mark this potent reading, certainly a substantial rival for the Serkin/Bernstein effort from around the same period.
This entirely festive disc could too easily fall between the musical cracks, a sleeper otherwise unnoticed. It should occupy a special place on your record shelf.