Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 – Fellner/Nagano (ECM New Series 2114)


Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Till Fellner piano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano conductor
Concert recordings, May and November 2008 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montréal
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In his liner essay, Paul Griffiths rightly credits Ludwig van Beethoven with having given the orchestra “a voice,” and in the composer’s final concertos offered here we have even greater reason to bask in his voluminous discourse, made all the more so for the temperamental piano at its center. These two musical forces, strings and keys, “speak to us by speaking to each other.” Such plurivocity, Griffiths further contends, is only heightened by the performances on this disc. Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who previously graced us with his Bach interpretations, now enacts an equally contested dramaturgy in these mighty, yet ever delicate masterworks. At the podium is Kent Nagano, a personal operatic favorite who treats the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal like a giant chorus far too expansive to be constricted by human throats.

Fellner (photo by Ben Ealovega)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805/06)
While most concertos of this magnitude would begin with an orchestral prelude of sorts into which the soloist may be dropped like so much creative ink, here the latter opens the floor in the tonic before spreading its fingers into the dominant key. The composer holds our attention throughout its entire 19-minute expanse, a concerto in and of itself; no small feat considering that it twists the barest of thematic cores into a veritable unicorn’s horn of charging force, brought home in the glorious final chords. The second movement entrances us with its attendant imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies before Hades. Having only melody to hold on to in its shadows, we put our trust in this music completely. Our abstruse confusion is over before we know it, and as we are swept up in the ensuing Rondo we find that we’ve been dreaming all along.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op. 73 (1809/10)
Despite having earned the nickname of “Emperor,” this concerto is, Griffiths reminds us, nothing if monarchical. Opening in tutti and with a graceful cadenza, the Allegro charts a formidable exposition through landscapes unchanging and deciduous alike. Dancing configurations in the first half underscore not only a depth of virtuosity, but also of melodic effect, while denser punctuations in the second thread our minds with braids of protracted thematic closure. A pensive Adagio heralds ever so subtly the newly emerging Romanticism of the age. Fellner’s careful pedaling ensures that we get the most out of every phrase as the piano descends toward the lone bassoon that bleeds into the concluding Rondo. One can almost feel the hems of dresses and tailored lapels tracing their grand circles in the air as the instrumentalists engage in a lavish dance. Beethoven sweeps his brush through the piano’s densest colors and uses these to paint a rousing portrait of epic intimacies.

Both of these concertos are dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria (1788-1831), a student of Beethoven’s who would also become a great patron. That such powerful creations might sometimes not exist without likeminded support is a sad yet potent reminder of the invisible tug-of-war between music and economics. Thankfully, ECM’s finely chosen interpretations and engineering betray none of these politics and present the music in all its richness without any strings attached. We see this in Nagano’s palpable free spirit, in the orchestra’s every nuance, and in Fellner’s attentiveness to each cumulative set of notes. He plays the middle movements faster than most, giving them new life for a new century, plowing ahead with the immensity of fortitude and passion that spawned them. Bravos all around.