Gramophone Awards Shortlist 2016
At the sessions: conductor James Gaffigan and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra are with Vilde Frang every step of the way mighty overstrung iron-framed grand in Paris in 1867.
This is not, then, an instrument of Beethoven’s period. (For that you must go to Robert Levin’s fine Archiv set of the concertos.) Beethoven did own an Erard, presented by the company to ‘Mr Bethoffen à Vienne’ in 1803, but that was a very different creature to this 1849 model with its metal frame, double escapement action and 7� octave keyboard.
Both DVDs carry a 40-minute documentary about the orchestra. Worthy as this is, I would have preferred a film about the Erard. With its powerful bass and the bell-like brilliance of its top registers (a tricky combination, unerringly matched by Pires in the wider tessituras of the C minor Concerto), not to mention a system of under-damping which requires fresh thinking about pedalling, it must be a challenge to play. Still, the end results as we have them here are a joy.
Neither pianist plays less brilliantly or less expressively than on a modern grand. It’s simply the effects that can be intriguingly different. The brilliance of the Erard’s top registers, which so commended the instrument to pianists such as SaintSaëns and Planté, serves both concertos particularly well. After all, it’s in the dash, dazzle and stellar imaginings of these high-lying passages that so much of the inner content of Beethoven’s keyboard concertos lies.
The C major Concerto has long been one of Martha Argerich’s party pieces. Despite Brüggen’s very ‘un-period’ –
‘laboured’ would be a less polite term – pacing of the first-movement ritornello, Argerich is able instantly to energise proceedings, driving the music forwards while at the same time using the Erard’s particular sound palette to bring out the martellato character of Beethoven’s more bullish writing. Similarly in the finale she brings a dashing, jazzy, appropriately improvised feel to the music. In a concerto that needs to be driven, she drives the Erard strongly on. In the more emotionally complex C minor Concerto, Pires prefers a more measured approach, quietly husbanding the instrument’s resources with her own sure and discriminating touch.
Pires recently recorded the Third and Fourth concertos with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO (Onyx, 10/14), performances which drew an appropriately eloquent response from Bryce Morrison. Here is a pianist, he wrote, who ‘appears to do so little and ends by doing everything’. In an age of ‘interpretation’, Pires’s performances ‘are simply of another order’. And so it is here. It’s a wonderful performance, during which Brüggen and his players come fully into their own. I also find Brüggen a kinder accompanist than Harding, probably because the contemporary fad for making modern orchestras play in a ‘period’ style can often etiolate the sound or even brutalise it.
Sviatoslav Richter has a diary entry: ‘I’m fiercely opposed to televised broadcasts. The image prevents you from listening and there’s nothing interesting to see.’ He might have thought differently here.
Watching the touch on this fine old instrument of these two great mistresses of their art, and relishing the sounds they conjure forth, is an education in itself. Both are exceptional releases. Richard Osborne
Britten . Korngold Britten Violin Concerto, Op 15 Korngold Violin Concerto, Op 35 Vilde Frang vn Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / James Gaffigan Warner Classics F 2564 60092-1 (58 • DDD)
Collectors of a certain age may look askance at the packaging (there are no fewer than five photographs of the soloist and no one else gets a look-in), but let the carping end there. These are urgently communicative, potentially transformative accounts of scores which, if no longer confined to the fringes of the repertoire, have yet to command universal admiration. Placing them back to back is a risk given their very divergent aesthetic responses to the huge political and moral challenges of their time. So far as I am aware, Gil Shaham and Daniel Hope are the only big-name soloists to have recorded both concertos, never mind actually pairing them. In her brief introduction to the project, Vilde Frang writes that it has long been her wish to bring together two of her favourite concertos. If you’ve been impressed by her previous releases you’ll already have this
18 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2016