By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Three new recordings demonstrate the variety of what cellist Anner Bylsma called “that wonderful piece,” Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Contemporaneous with the “Eroica” Symphony and the Opus 59 string quartets, it stars the composer’s three favorite instruments in a narrative of love, beauty, and heroism. And friendship, as each shoulders a heavy load: while the violinist and cellist must be virtuosos, the pianist must only have mastered scales and arpeggios—but must be able to produce the sound Beethoven expected from the piano, because it contributes so significantly to the music’s color and textural variety, and participates in virtually all of the dialog.
Laurence Equilbey’s period-instrument orchestra called Insula features modern-instrument soloists Alexandra Conunova and Natalie Clein playing on period instruments and bows with gut strings, and David Kadouch playing on an 1892 Pleyel.
Equilbey told me that her approach to Beethoven was “based on poetry, timbral blends, a natural and vital outpouring of dramatic energy and light, and the improvisatory style so important in Beethoven’s concertos.” And that’s what you get here: a big, muscular orchestra with plenty of definition in the winds, brass, and timpani, and excellent flow, balanced well with the three soloists. Conunova and Clein play with an astounding range of nuanced phrasing and color, playing off each other, using portamento sweetly with Kadouch, the perfect partner in crime, throwing in little ornaments here and there, daring the others to do the same.
Insula’s success complements the only entirely period-instrument recording ever made, by Collegium Aureum in the analog age, featuring Bylsma, Franzjosef Maier, and Paul Badura-Skoda. Seek it out. It is a revelation.
But back to more recent offerings. From its opening subterranean depths, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording, starring first-desk players and one of its favorite pianists, moves with leonine size and purpose. It is elegant, immensely powerful, and yet in the Larghetto, plays with a hushed, chamber-music feeling. Both violinist Duncan Riddell, who soars the way a concertmaster should, and cellist Richard Harwood integrate splendidly with the RPO and with French pianist Elizabeth Sombart in terms of gorgeous sound and triumphant majesty. In matters of portamento, Harwood swoops now and then in the most wonderfully flamboyant way that has no stylistic precedent other than contributing to the general exhilarating fun, and so it works. Pierre Vallet conducts like he really cares.
The new version from Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma, and Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the keyboard was recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie. The orchestral playing is all synched so seamlessly that wherever Mutter and Ma go in their Olympian manner has majesty and flow. And whatever predictability creeps in as the long first movement grows is dispelled by the variety and delight both veterans of the Triple Concerto take in the Polacca’s brilliant riff sequences, in particular the rustic charm and character that Beethoven reveled in. After the dizzying whirls of triplets, and chasing each other’s tails in the Allegro 2/4, Mutter and Ma reintroduce the main theme graciously before the music ends grandly with the piano’s pedal held down for the last three bars, as it should be.
An audiophile’s note: The size of the music and its dynamic range means that the louder you can play it, the better you realize just how much is going on. When the Triple Concerto is going full steam, it’s awesome.
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