Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 3 (Chamber Versions) (CD)

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Neal Peres Da Costa, Skye McIntosh, Australian Haydn Ensemble

The drama of Beethoven transported into the intimate spaces of the Classical world. 

The Australian Haydn Ensemble, acclaimed for their fresh and vibrant performances of the music of the Classical era, bring their deep knowledge of historical performance techniques to Beethoven’s first and third piano concertos to play them as they would have been first encountered by audiences of Beethoven’s own time: as chamber music, for a small ensemble that could comfortably fit into a private home. In an era without recordings, most music lovers discovered the works of the great composers not by hearing them, but by playing them. These arrangements by Australian scholar Vi King Lim are patterned on the hugely popular chamber editions of Beethoven and Mozart symphonies by London-dwelling Italians Cimador and Masi, which graced the libraries of every music-loving household at the turn of the 19th century.

Neal Peres Da Costa performs on a meticulously crafted replica of an 1819 fortepiano by Conrad Graf – maker of one of Beethoven’s own pianos.

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Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
1. Allegro con brio
2. Largo
3. Rondo, Allegro scherzando

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
1. Allegro con brio
2. Largo
3. Rondo, Allegro

Neal Peres Da Costa Fortepiano
Australian Haydn Ensemble
Skye McIntosh artistic director

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Chamber reductions of Beethoven Piano Concertos conjure up the period but miss the composer's youthful high spirits.



This release from the Australian Haydn Ensemble gives us a peek back into history. Musicologist Vi King Lim studied period reductions of the Beethoven symphonies, designed to allow moderately sized chamber groups to play orchestral works. In the same way, Lim has arranged the First and Third of the Beethoven Piano Concertos for two violins, two violas, cello, bass and flute. As well as playing the solo part, the fortepiano acts as a continuo in tutti passages.

I admit it took me a few hearings to warm to the result. With smaller forces, I had expected a lighter touch than you hear from concert grands and modern orchestras. Early Beethoven is nothing if not playful, but the choices made in this performance of Concerto No. 1 feel cautious. The opening tempo, hardly rushed, is more stately than spirited, but when we reach the development section fortepianist Peres da Costa slams on the brakes. The momentum never quite recovers. Wit is lacking in the Rondo movement, even though the playing is polished.

A tendency to put inverted commas around solo passages recurs in the great C Minor Concerto, but that basically serious work responds more positively to the performers' approach, especially in the slow movement.

I dislike reviews that condemn something for what it's not. These musicians are undoubtedly skilled and thoughtful. Peres da Costa shines in the Third Concerto, where he is compelling. The recording sits on the reverberant side, inflating the sound in loud passages. In a word: challenging.