BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; Seven Variations on “God Save the King,” WoO 78; Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” – Phillip Kawin, piano/ Russian National Orchestra/ Gerard Schwarz – Master Performers MP 20 001 70:00 (4/16/19) (CD + DVD): ***
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1804) marks a clear departure from the Classical, Mozart-based models that had defined him prior to the news of his oncoming deafness addressed in the Heligenstadt Testament. Although the work pays serious debts to Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, the entire tenor of Beethoven’s work proves more stormy and dramatically colossal, a recipient of the Sturm und Drang sensibility.
Pianist Kawin commands a fine musical pedigree, having studied with Howard Aibel—who had been assistant to Rosina Lhevinne—and with Dora Zaslavsky, a pupil of both Wilhelm Backhaus and Harold Bauer. Yet, despite powerful credentials and solid support in the collaboration with Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra that had been honed by Mikhail Pletnev, the approach remains for me more lyrical and “correctly academic” than emotionally explosive. At least until Kawin’s first movement cadenza, the emphasis has been architecturally and texturally attentive. The kind of titanic dynamite we know from Serkin, Anda, Haskil and Arrau has yielded to attractive finesse. Schwarz, however, injects drama into Beethoven’s longest opening tutti and into the timpani-laden coda that rushes to judgment.
Their essentially songful reading works nice wonders in the E Major Largo, where a reverent hymn evolves into a haunted nocturne rife with wind and horn colors, particularly bassoon and flute. I had hoped the rousing Rondo-Allegro last movement would inspire some risks, but clarity and polite articulation rather seize control. Everything emerges as a classical analysis demands it should be: excellent landings at cadences, fine articulation in runs, scales, and trills, and a fugal episode as clear as a limpid stream. But where are those “fanciful wonderings in antic procession” celebrated, here, in the virtuosic words of Clark Ashton Smith? I grow impatient for a healthy dose of divine madness.
For me, Kawin fares better in Beethoven’s whimsical 1804 treatment of the British anthem, “God Save the King,” a set of seven variations and coda predominantly in C Major. Here, Kawin’s attention to clear articulation and salon etiquette yields a result charming and often piquant, as Beethoven divests the theme of its pomp in order to reveal its capacities for color treatment, especially in agogic displacements. Kawin executes Variation 4 and its syncopes wittily and avoids percussion for its own sake. Variation 5 in C minor gains a romantic allure; the Sixth (Allegro alla marcia) restores a mock dignity to the proceedings. While beginning ominously, Variation 7 evolves into an energetic coda played by Kawin with enthusiastic panache.
We know Beethoven’s 1803 Erard piano had a low F that he would exploit in his potent 1804 Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, “Appassionata.” The work, which Czerny spoke of as “the most perfect execution of a mighty and colossal plan,” has its own telos, and he warned against taking liberties with its dynamics and metrics. Nevertheless, when a Serkin or Richter performs the work, with its passing, Neapolitan harmonies and extremes of color and emotion, we forgive the licenses. Once more, Kawin plays for beauty of tone and correctness of expression, hitting the Fs and executing the stretti with happy clarity. The “fate” motif is there, but it lacks dire possibilities. The wonderful chords that define the second movement, a theme and variations marked Andante con moto, Kawin realizes correctly, as written. A rude diminished seventh chord interrupts the gently martial idyll to invoke the last movement, a ferocious whirlwind Allegro non troppo. Only no rudeness and a whirlwind that has been tamed. Kawin makes jeu perlé of Beethoven’s sweeping volatility, although at the last, Kawin cuts the rope and unleashes something like Hell’s fury. For me, it’s a bit late.
The DVD version of the Concerto (38:00), while visually attractive in the best Karajan tradition of such events – here filmed in Rachmaninov [sic] Concert Hall, Moscow, Russian Federation (25-26 January 2018) – portrays a conscientious—albeit academicallyl inclined—soloist joining an emotionally committed conductor.