When you’ve played Beethoven together for 65 years, something happens

When you’ve played Beethoven together for 65 years, something happens


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2020

Welcome to the 43rd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

1st piano concerto, opus 15

This is where chronologies can get confused. The first piano concerto, in C major, was written after what is now known as the second, the one in B-flat major. There was a prior piano concerto, which he abandoned, so the numbering is meaningless. This ‘first’ concerto is the one he began soon after arriving in Vienna, writing it under such pressure that ‘two days before the performance […] four copyists sat in the hallway working from the manuscript sheets that he handed over to them one at a time.”

The first performance was given in Vienna on December 18, 1795 with the composer as soloist. It was acclaimed as the best since Mozart, but Beethoven was not satisfied and started tinkering. He wrote extra pages and enlarged the orchestra with clarinets, trumpets and timpani. He gave another premiere at Prague in 1798, with different solo cadenzas. Then he made further changes, not submitting the score to a publisher until 1801. The slow movement proved to be the longest he would ever write for a concerto and the finale is a runaway train that threatens to crash into the next bridge. Although his B-flat major concerto was by now justly popular, this replaced it as the first in the publishers’ catalogues. The various manuscripts, some lost, would prove a nightmare for latterday scholars and it remains impossible to say which represents the final thoughts of a composer who was also the soloist in many early performances.

Although he sticks to the Haydn-Mozart formula of maintaining separate narrative lines for pianist and orchestra, with very little interplay or provocation, he makes the striking decision to remove the flute and oboes from the middle movement, leaving the relatively novel clarinet to lead the winds. It’s decidedly new, but not yet challenging in the way he becomes as the century turns.

In an archive of 100 recordings, Martha Argerich stands out as having spent more studio time with this concerto than anyone else, starting in 1983 with Seiji Ozawa in Munich and continuing to the present day. At one point, Argerich played no other concerto for more than a year, and still protested that she had yet to get to grips with this one. I have heard her both live and recorded. The performance I like best is the one she gave in 2015 with Daniel Barenboim‘s West-East Diwan orchestras of young players from across the Middle East. As kids of eight in the 1940s, Argerich and Barenboim used to go with their parents every Friday night to a rich man’s house in Buenos Aires where they would play piano for a while to amuse the grownups during cocktail hour before being let loose on the best food they saw all week. The understanding between these two artists is lifelong, surpassing the normal give-and-take of conductor-soloist relationships. Barenboim, as conductor, allows Argerich to breathe as the spirit moves her; she, in return, allows him into her spiritual world. This is a gripping piece of musical theatre and a true summit of Beethoven performance.

The oldest extant recording is by Wilhelm Kempff with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1925. The orchestral sound is appalling, but the young pianist commands attention in the middle movement with a playful teasing out of Beethoven’s long lines, daring the clarinet to run out of breath. There’s a second recording of great serenity, taken with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1953, with Paul Van Kempen conducting, but the best of Kempff is to be found in his imperious 1961 account with Ferdinand Leitner and the Berlin Phil, for which the solost, a part-time composer, also wrote his own cadenzas.

The next question any reviewer has to face is: Gilels or Richter? The Soviet antipode pianists recorded both inside Russia and in western Europe. Although the Russian sound quality is inferior, the stylistic freedom is often greater and the ambience more powerful. Emil Gilels with Kurt Sanderling in 1947 somehow conveys the existence of music as an island haven in the throes of Stalin’s Great Terror. Sviatoslav Richter, with the same benign conductor in 1952, is almost capricious: kill me if you can, I’m playing it my way. Richter’s great western recording was with Charles Munch in Boston 1961, in a world of his own, almost static in the slow Largo. Gilels recorded in London with Adrian Boult, in Paris with André Cluytens and André Vandernoot and in Prague with Sanderling. His most personal account is with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1966 for EMI, the patter of his fingers on the keyboard shutting out the menace of his times.

The Italian magician Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, conducted in Vienna in 1980 by Carlo Maria Giulini, cuts loose in the finale, haring away from the orchestra at suicidal speeds. Mitsuko Uchida, the perfect contrast, is too well brought up to run away. Instead, she holds back Kurt Sanderling and the Bavarian radio orchestra to play at her pace, perfectly composed, a soloist’s prerogative. The Polish Hungarian Piotr Anderszewski (2008) is impossibly fast and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen unpleasantly loud. Lang Lang (2007), with Christoph Eschenbach and Orchestre de Paris, offers nothing here to the history of interpretation.

My New York friend Steve Rubin, who knows more about Brahms’ first concerto than any man alive, swears by Glenn Gould in this concerto, the 1958 Golschmann performance for Columbia
rather than the prior Canadian concert recording. Others, no doubt, will swear at Gould. He can be more infuriating than anyone, overriding the metronome with dangerous speeds and never looking either side at crossroads. Somewhere around 06.15 in the finale he hits a barrier of near-atonality. You never know what to expect with Gould. That’s what makes him so exciting, even when he’s just doing it for effect.

Gould wrote some cadenzas for this concerto but never recorded them. Lars Vogt did, with Simon Rattle in 1996. Definitely worth a visit.

Arrau, Brendel, Uchida, Gulda, Pollini and Leon Fleisher are all hotly recommendable, and if you want a fortepiano reading look no further than Ronald Brautigam. Before you give up on modern performers, you must here one of the most recent recordings, by the young Canadian Jan Lisiecki, standing in for an injured Murray Perahia. Lisiecki has a hypnotic singing line in the first two concertos, no historical controversies, no agendas, just music for music’s sake. You won’t be disappointed.

Pollini, Argerich, Barenboim


  • Mick the Knife says:

    Why are there two pianists with Bernie Sanders?

  • M McAlpine says:

    Corection: Gould recorded his cadenzas in the 1958 Golschmann performance for Columbia.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I believe Gould described that first movement cadenza as “a rather Regerian fugue.” It is indeed a very entertaining and ear-cleansing recording, but for me at least, it is one of those “and then on the other hand, it can ALSO sound like this” types of recordings, although not quite to the same extreme as the Gould/Stokowski Emperor Concerto.

      My own favorite for No. 1 is by a pianist who seems to rarely get mentioned in these overviews: Robert Casadesus (the stereo recording with the Concertgebouw conducted by Eduard van Beinum). Same record label as Gould, but whew, what a contrast! Casadesus really captures that “out of Mozart, but beyond Mozart” sense of the piece. A pity he never recorded No. 2.

      I still remember my father’s (and my own) deep disappointment. We had tickets to hear Jean Casadesus, but he died in a car accident not long before that concert. Then we had tickets to hear Robert Casadesus, and he took ill and died not long before that concert. I have no idea what we would have done had a concert with Gaby been announced.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    The First is my favorite Beethoven piano concerto.
    Kempff/Leitner is a great performance, and readily available. Fleisher/Szell is also wonderful, as is Gilels/Szell. All three are prime choices, in modern stereo sound. Kempff’s go with Van Kempen is excellent as well, if you’re OK with mono sound.
    Michelangeli/Giulini is odd in a way that is difficult to describe, but it’s certainly worth hearing.
    Norman is giving Glenn Gould a backhanded compliment, but GG’s recording (with Golschmann) he mentions is really, really good.
    I have never regarded Sanderling as a “benign” (?) conductor. If you actually listen to Richter’s or Gilels’ recordings with him, you’ll see that he is anything but. Both are excellent performances. Sanderling is also Uchida’s accompanist, but Uchida is so bloodless as to make her recording irrelevant.
    Going way back, I’ve always been fond of Schnabel/Sargent.
    And here’s a dark horse candidate: the beautiful pianist Jasminka Stancul, accompanied by Alexander Rahbari. Their performance of the First is just gorgeous: the rhumba in the last movement will make you dance!

  • Clarrieu says:

    I seem to remember an incredible Cortot recording of it…

    • A.L. says:

      Cortot? Would love to hear that. Also great, Julius Katchen with the LSO under the baton of Piero Gamba. Joyous music making from a time when this music seemed and was held to greater import than today. The playing and vigor of the recording reflects it.

  • Tamino says:


  • Daniel Poulin says:

    A few notes about Gould’s playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no1. He first played it on December 3, 1947 in Hamilton (Ontario) and then in Toronto on January 23, 1951 both times with The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest MacMillan. He did play one of Beethoven’s Cadenza to the first movement for these performances. (A recording of one of these concerts is available on the CBC label.)The video seen here was recorded in Montreal with a pick-up orchestra (mostly members of The Montreal Symphony) under Paul Scherman. The recording was intended for Radio-Canada (The French side of the CBC). It was Gould’s first TV concert and he was not yet traveling with his own chair. It also marked the very first time he played his own cadenza to the first movement. Two days later (December 14) Gould was the guest soloist with the Montreal Symphony under Désiré Defauw in the same Concerto, a concert repeated the following day (December 15). The year was 1954, Gould was then 22. The first movement was the only one played for the TV concert. Also of interest: there were women in the sring section, which was quite unusual since most major orchestras were male only in those years. Shortly after Gould’s death in 1982 the CJRT Orchestra (Toronto) played Beethoven’s Concerto no1 with a young pianist as soloist. The conductor was Paul Robinson. The pianist’s name is Raymond Spasowski, a Toronto native who played Gould’s cadenza. He had learned it using Gould’s own personal score that I had borrowed from Glenn a few months earlier.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    There are, of course, many great versions of this concerto. I would add to the list the Radu Lupu recording with the IPO and Mehta.

  • Don Fatale says:

    I saw Martha perform Piano Concerto No. 1 in Budapest recently. I think I entered a dream state during the 2nd movement. Quite mesmerising.

  • fliszt says:

    No one played Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto better than Alicia de Larrocha.

    • Amos says:

      I recently found a performance she gave of the 5th with Sixten Ehrling and the Cleveland Orchestra which I found quite good. Not sure why I never associated her with Beethoven but live and learn.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I like best Katchen’s version.
    Did anyone notice Barenboim playing his own cadenza-he is also gifted as a composer I see….wonderful cadenza.I wish h e would have done similarly in other beethoven’s concertos.

  • Amos says:

    I don’t recall if the Concerto #3 was already discussed but the Gilels/Szell/VPO live recording is imo superb and with sound to match:


  • Yi Peng Li says:

    The fortepiano recordings are reckoning up by dozens and becoming better. Tell me, have you yet discussed Levin with Gardiner? There might be some interesting competition because of Immerseel and Brautigam’s new version, and Harmonia Mundi’s releases of Bezuidenhof.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Alfred Cortot’s air-check with Lausanne Chamber orchestra/Dezarsens 1944 was unknown until its issue a few years ago, I believe by Tahra. He played itin Italy after the war, where my friend Bianca Rodinis saw him perform it. The air-check is straight-laced and a little disappointing. For instance there’s no first-movement cadenza at all, just a chord and trill.

    My first Firsts we,re gieseking/Rosbaud with Berlin State Opera and a fine clarinet’ and Ania Dorfmann/Toscnini. Edwin Fischer’s live air-check is another disappointment, even his own cadenza, but Kempff/Leitner are absolutely in order, and Kempff alsoplays his own cadenzas. which are fine and even funny.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Correction: Cortot’s Beethoven First is from an April 13, 1947 broadcast, not 1944. The conductor is Victor Desaarzens, issued 2007 by Tahra with Vlado Perlemuter’s ORTF 1954 Ravel trio with Jeanne Gautier and Andre Levy, also 1939 Lumen 78s of Liszt’s Deux Legendes de St. Francises of Paolo and Assisi “marching on the floats” and preaching to the birds, played by Perlemuter, a Cortot student.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Interesting, and rare, that the First is reliable Greg Bottini’s favorite of the five. I certainly enjoy hearing the first three more than the last two for many years. And another vote for Michelangeli/Giulini, whom I clean forgot. Sergei Rachmaninoff played the First, in his last concert, and sometimes with his Paganini Rhapsody. I live by after-thoughts, but this is my last.

  • Edar Self says:

    Next to last afterthought, prompted by A. L. and Carrieu’s posts here about Alfred Cortot’s live 1947 Beethoven first on Tahra with Victor Desarzzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. I just heard it again and am now eating row, a nourishing diet.

    The sound is mono radio quality, but orchestra and soloist play with warmth, flexibility, nuance, shading, phrasing, agogics, and voicing not often heard. And Cortot is Cortot, never doing the expected, often startlingly original, with just enough wrong notes, re-written passages, register changes and patented bass rumbles for authenticity. The finale is a near riot.

    This is for Cortot completists, but Greg Bottini might hear some new ideas and takes on his favorite Beethoven concerto. Now to revisit Michelangeli/Giulini and Edwin Fischer’s live aircheck.