Bezuidenhout: Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 5 review – boisterous and charming

Erica Jeal

Hopefully you are not sick of Beethoven yet in his 250th anniversary year, because there are plenty of recordings to come that you might not have realised you need to hear. The five Piano Concertos are hardly under-recorded, but it is well worth making space for this first release in a planned complete set by Kristian Bezuidenhout, the Freiburger Barockorchester and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.

Bezuidenhout’s sleeve note reminds us of how little of the piano part Beethoven had written down before his first performances, and argues for a “live-for-the-moment, mercurial approach” that treats the score as a “springboard”. That doesn’t mean he’s improvising – Bezuidenhout gives us all the notes we expect – but it does mean that he and Heras-Casado have thought deeply about how best to make these pieces sing. He plays on a copy of an 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano, which sounds both perky and soft-edged, with a slight woodiness allied to an almost bell-like clarity; Bezuidenhout’s scales, played with absolute evenness, ping pleasingly up and down the keyboard.

First up is the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, No 5: Bezuidenhout’s entry is imperially grand, but although he takes all the time he wants, he doesn’t hang around. A hint of playfulness comes through even here; indeed, it’s a strong feature of the performances as a whole. The orchestra can be almost boisterous, but the piano tempers it with a raised eyebrow, or with its sheer charm. There are just a few episodes where things become a touch fussy, where Bezuidenhout’s teasing phrasing and the orchestra’s responses to it take on a fleeting self-consciousness. There’s a seriousness behind all this seemingly freewheeling playing, and the two slow movements are convincing as episodes of reflection; that of the Concerto No 2, which recedes into stillness and memory at the end, comes across with more profundity. But what marks this recording out is the way they make the music dance – as if no one is watching.

This week’s other pick

As Vasily Petrenko prepares to hand over the chief conductorship of the Oslo Philharmonic to his successor Klaus Mäkelä, the orchestra’s new Strauss disc – last in a series of three – shows what fine, swaggering shape he leaves it in. Alongside a glowing, moving performance of Death and Transfiguration, their Alpine Symphony is bold and vivid, with waterfalls so glittering you can practically feel the sting of the ice-cold spray, a sweeping, joyous view from the top, and a whirling gale-force storm.