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Thread: The Emperor (Beethoven)

  1. #16
    Lieutenant Commander, Concertmaster Izabella's Avatar
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    I think that "the something" that is so appealing in his music is passion...
    my favorite is his piano music
    Izabella

  2. #17
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Todd View Post
    At last! For years I’ve wanted to hear Annie Fischer play the Emperor, and a year or so ago I read about a bootleg version, though I was never able to track it down. Fortunately, the good folks at Doremi have finally delivered what I’ve been waiting for! An actual performance of the work by St Annie! .
    Todd - marry me?

  3. #18
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    For some reason I got the bug to hear yet more versions of the Emperor. It hasn’t been too terribly long since my last batch, but you know when you get a hankerin’ for something, you gotta satisfy said hankerin’. So I snapped up a few versions I’ve been wanting for a while as well as some I didn’t even know about until recently.

    This installment starts out with Anton Kuerti’s 1986 recording with (now Sir) Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I praised the complete cycle not too long ago, and not surprisingly the Emperor comes off well, though not without a few caveats. The Allegro opens nicely enough, with the orchestra playing strongly and in a straight forward manner, and Kuerti plays with fleet dexterity and a few minor tweaks to dynamics and tempo. The orchestral interlude does sound a bit slower than I tend to prefer, but it is potent and grand. When Kuerti returns, he displays superb flexibility and even more superb trills, with his tone and dynamics possessing much in the way of nuance. And, not surprising given Kuerti’s proclivities, he really revels in the slower and quieter playing. The first (and second) left-right passage is superbly clear, with the left hand part unusually well articulated, though the part immediately after tips over into slightly stiff playing. The Grand Flourish is broad, powerful, and again well articulated. Grand indeed. The Adagio un poco mosso opens with the band playing in a suitably rich, basically romantic fashion, though not too much so. Kuerti enters with exquisite control and subtle shading – the meticulous slow movement is his thing. Every aspect of his playing is played supremely well, though the music takes on an abstract mien, if you will. It certainly doesn’t evoke any romantic imagery, at least for this listener, but the gentle, coolly romantic, beautiful music is hard to resist. It’s really only in the concluding Rondo where the biggest quibbles (if quibbles can be big) arise. Kuerti starts off grandly, but he deploys his Kuerti-isms, tweaking dynamics, notes and chords in too deliberate a fashion. Some gestures are a bit too exaggerated. The band sounds largely conventional, meaning muscular and driven in just about the right proportions. Kuerti’s second pass, in contrast to his opening salvo, is swift, gliding, and glistening – and unaffected. But rather than play that way through to the end, he alternates his two styles. Some will love it, some will like it, others will tolerate it, but it’s there. This main quibble aside, this recording gets an essentially clean bill of musical health.

    Next up is a recording I wanted to try for a while, but one where I’ve had some misgivings: Krystian Zimerman’s pairing with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Why the misgivings? Well, it just seems to be prepackaged product. A star pianist and a venerated conductor, together at last! And so forth. Granted, the Pollini / Böhm recording could be likewise construed, but throw in Lenny and it just gets magnified. Well, “enough dawdling” I told myself, so I bought the DVD incarnation, mainly because it’s cheaper than the CD set. (‘Splain that one.) I dawdled far too long. This is one of the best versions of the work I’ve heard, joining the likes of Pollini / Böhm, Serkin / Ormandy, and Katchen / Gamba, and this much is clear right out of the gate. The Allegro opens with significant heft and force from the Wieners, and Zimerman launches into his part with crystalline, perfect execution imbued with enough force and scale to satisfy any want. The orchestral interlude manages to be all things: smooth, flowing, yet also quick and vibrant. Zimerman’s return is a model of poise and precision, and his trills are simply magnificent. His playing is satisfyingly intense, but also just a bit cool and detached. Fine by me. In many ways the big moments I look for are all checklist perfect. Clear, evenly voiced left-right passage? Check. Sweeping, magisterial, precise Grand Flourish? Check. More magnificent trills? Check. And so forth. This is not in any way a criticism; rather, it’s reinforcement of how good everything is. The Adagio benefits enormously from the warm, gorgeous VPO strings, and Lenny leads a nicely romanticized take, much like what he did with Serkin. Zimerman once again sounds perfect: tonally beautiful, precise, though perhaps just a bit too detached to make the movement ideally romantic. The Rondo starts off with Zimerman playing clearly and with significant strength, though I wanted a bit more oomph, and Lenny brings the heft. This is big playing; this is grand Beethoven. Perhaps things can seem a bit too polished, and spontaneity a bit lacking; the whole thing may almost seem like product. But what product! Really I have nothing but praise for the performance. The only complaints I do have stem from the visual side of things. Image quality could be better, but more distracting is Lenny prancing around in a manner unbefitting a septuagenarian, and I also find Zimerman’s very Gouldian conducting to himself a bit much. But musically, this is top-flight.

    John O’Conor makes a welcome return to my survey of Beethoven recordings. I’ve long admired his complete sonata cycle, so when I saw this disc I was certain I had to have it. Never the showiest pianist, O’Conor instead focuses on poetry and finesse, rather like his (much more) esteemed teacher, the great Wilhelm Kempff. Alas, this recording is not all I was hoping it could be. The Allegro opens with extra weighty sound from the band, and tonally beautiful and nicely articulated playing from O’Conor. He’s not particularly agile or forceful, though, so he plays to his strengths. After a big ‘n’ juicy orchestral interlude, O’Conor’s return offers some manicured playing with beautiful if not awesome trills. (He’s certainly no Zimerman or Yokoyama.) The left-right passage is nice, with good clarity, but not enough drive and precision. The Grand Flourish is sweeping and fluid, but it lacks enough power and control. Not at all surprisingly, the Adagio is where O’Conor shines. Both he and the orchestra play with warmth and ample beauty, but they also keep things from getting too mushy or slow. O’Conor plays with great finesse and throws in hints of melancholy to good effect. The Rondo finds O’Conor playing with nice drive and plenty of oomph, but he just doesn’t display the masterful control of, say, Zimerman. The band offers some nice, beefy playing, but O’Conor’s relative short-comings remain too obvious in this movement. This isn’t a terrible recording of this work – I’ve definitely heard worse – but it’s just not a particularly good one. Sound for the Telarc disc has but one minor hiccup: the bass is too generous and muddy. Otherwise it is SOTA, and the piano has a most realistic, slightly stage right location, just like in concert. I will also say that the real reason to consider this disc is the recording of the B flat concerto; O’Conor delivers one of the best I’ve heard. Possibly the best.

    Time to go from the student to the teacher. I’ve already covered three Kempff recordings, all of which have something to offer, but here is one new to me. It’s a 1966 recording with Seiji Ozawa and the Montreal Symphony. It’s even later than the stereo DG recording, which was very much an old man’s take on the work, albeit an excellent one. How would this fare? Well, suffice it to say that Kempff in the studio is different than Kempff on the concert platform. The orchestra opens with somewhat surprising forcefulness, and the aged Kempff starts off with surprising speed, agility, and less surprising fluidity. There are noticeable slips, though, so those wanting a note perfect reading must look elsewhere. After a nicely forceful orchestral interlude, Kempff’s return displays his fine tone, nice clarity, and some crisp, clean trills. The left-right passage (both, actually) are not ideally clear, and in the more exuberant passages Kempff sounds a bit sloppy. But it generally sounds right, there’s just no other way to describe it. And never more so than in the Grand Flourish. Kempff plays it with such zest that the near-reckless feel and occasional sloppiness are more than forgiven. The Adagio is taken at a very slightly brisk pace, and Ozawa leads a more than serviceable reading. Kempff, well, he’s heavenly. Not at all slow in his approach, he plays with extraordinary tonal variegation and a soft staccato style – no drowsy, syrupy legato for Mr Kempff here. The nuance and grace makes up for the slips that show up even here. The Rondo shows up Kempff’s technical limitations as it is cautious and undernourished, yet even with less than ideal power from the soloist, there is a vitality to the playing, a sense of musically shooting from the hip, as it were, that it ends up sounding inspirational. And someone close to the microphones really digs the music as there is a whole lot of vocalizing during the orchestral parts. (I assume it must be Kempff as nothing is audible when the piano is playing.) I know why. In some ways I ought not to like this. Kempff is clearly past his prime technically. Ozawa leads a good if not always compelling accompaniment. Sound is not the greatest. There’s too much (?) pronounced vocalizing. Yet I can’t resist it. Even with its limitations, this may be the best recording of this work from Kempff. It’s alive, an act of re-creative joy. It’s got heaps of that Kempff magic. That’s all one can ultimately say.

    Next up is the first appearance of Vladimir Ashkenazy in my survey. Which of his at least four recordings should I choose? I wondered. I opted for the version with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic. Someone recommended it (I can’t remember who), plus it has the Vienna Philharmonic, so it seemed a safe bet. Safe, that’s a word that I kept thinking of as I listened to this recording. Unfortunately, safe recordings are often not the best. On a superficial level there is much to enjoy. The Allegro opens with striking power from the orchestra; Ashkenazy delivers an effortless, if somewhat measured opening cadenza; Mehta leads a vigorous, meticulous interlude; Ashkenazy then delivers effortless trills, a superb left-right passage with an unusually expansive left hand, and a Grand Flourish that’s decidedly big and powerful. All that’s lacking is that spark, that ultimately unidentifiable spark of energy that the Kempff recording has in spades. The Adagio, aside from having some rather pronounced vibrato and perhaps a bit of schmaltz, finds Ashkenazy playing with perfect poise and (perhaps predictable) nuance. But everything is very safe. The Rondo has a powerful but not overpowering opening, and is generally very well executed, with everyone coming in right on cue, and so forth. The music does drag in a few places, but the overall impression, again, is of a nice, safe reading. And that ends up being the problem. As with Ashkenazy’s sonata cycle, everything is too safe. Yep, the man can play superbly from a technical standpoint (and so can the band!), but he just never really delivers what I’m looking for; he’s on auto-pilot, or something approaching it. Better to hear him in other repertoire, I think.

    What better way to follow up than with Ashkenazy’s co-winner of the ’62 Tchaikovsky Competition? I don’t know if John Ogdon ever made a commercial recording of this work, but the BBC Legends series has a recording pairing him with Jascha Horenstein and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1969. The Allegro shows the faults from the get-go. I don’t know about all of the different orchestras the BBC uses, but the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra must not have been the A-orchestra in 1969. The opening music, for instance, is rather perfunctory, and the interlude is not the model of precision, especially in the horns. (Oh, and there’s a high pitch whine that runs through the entire recording, and at times it’s paired with some most excellent distortion.) Ogdon, though, well he opens with sweeping grandeur and smooth, gliding ease. His trills are amazing. His left-right passages are cleanly punched out, though they seem to favor the right hand. His Grand Flourish is a bravura display. So far, a mixed bag. The Adagio continues this. The orchestra is only so-so, and Ogdon’s playing, trills aside, is only marginally better than so-so. Ogdon seems to prefer the more vigorous music, because he opens the Rondo with great speed and power. Once again the orchestra lets him down. There’s something else, though. For all the high energy playing Ogdon delivers, the whole thing never really catches fire. It’s very unusual. So, there are some strengths – well, one really: Ogdon’s playing in the more energetic passages – and some weaknesses. And then there’s that high-pitched whine. On balance, this is one I can live without. Perhaps another Ogdon recording of the piece will surface.

    After years of dawdling, I decided to finally give Leon Fleisher’s famous recording with George Szell and his Clevelanders a shot. This recording always seems to garner a lot of positive comments, so how could I go wrong? If I didn’t go wrong, I also didn’t get something as good as is often reported. Running through the various portions of the work finds much to praise. The Allegro finds the Cleveland Orchestra opening with efficient power and Fleisher playing with fine speed, articulation, agility, and musical athleticism. The orchestral interlude is the very model of corporate efficiency. Six-Sigma-ers would be proud. Fleisher’s return is supremely crisp and clean, and his trills are magnificently clean and taper off nicely at the end. The left-right passages are squeaky clean, with superb control of both parts, though the right seems ever so slightly favored. (That could be a byproduct of the bass-light recording.) The Grand Flourish is dispatched effortlessly and possesses enough scale to please. The Adagio displays many of the same traits, only slowed down and damped down a bit. The strings sound efficiently beautiful, and Fleisher plays everything with clarity and an efficient overall sheen. What’s lacking is an emotional element, at least for me. It’s almost like pristine sight-reading. The Rondo seems to benefit slightly more. Fleisher plays even the most challenging parts with apparent ease, and he injects hints of playfulness while retaining a virtuosic elegance displayed by few. Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra likewise play with a degree of precision matched by few, and everything is dispatched to perfection. For all its merits, this recording just doesn’t really do it for me. Fleisher’s pianism is simply amazing to behold for its effortlessness and clarity. And while this is definitely a “classical” take on this work, it is also just a bit too, well, efficient. There’s not enough bite, or storming the heavens, or whatever else you may want to call it. Throw in dated sound with excessive spotlighting, and this is a recording I probably will not return to frequently, even for all its strengths.

    Next up is Sylvia Capova and the mighty Ljubljana Radio Symphony Orchestra. The non-existent notes on this Intersound release never really clarify if she conducts or not. Alfred Scholz may be the conductor here, but then again maybe not. It appears that Ms Capova may have also recorded this work with the London Festival Orchestra under Alfred Scholz. Or did she? So, I can’t say with certainty what I listened to, or even when it was recorded, or which orchestra was used. I can report with certainty that this recording isn’t even good enough to be mediocre. (In case you’re wondering, I got a copy for free, so that’s why I listened.) The Allegro starts with a muddy sounding orchestra delivering a not ideally potent opening, and Capova plays the opening cadenza in a blurred, broad, and somewhat weak fashion. (Too spacious, too amorphous sound doesn’t help anything.) The orchestral interlude sounds muddy again, with the low strings rather blob-like. Capova’s return ain’t so hot: she strains in the quickest passages, and her trills sound sloppy and uneven. The left-right passage is mediocrity: it neither instills any confidence in the ability of the pianist, nor does it induce cringes. It’s just sort of there. The Grand Flourish is sweeping and “romantic,” but not particularly secure technically, and not very interesting. The Adagio finds the orchestra still a blurred mass, but here Capova seems more in her element early on. Her playing is on the romantic side, and that helps, but in the middle her playing becomes blocky, choppy, and just plain ugly. Blech. The Rondo opens with more energy and assuredness from the soloist than I would have anticipated, though the more vigorous passages later seem beyond Capova’s grasp. Throughout, the band is muddy and decidedly sub-par in every regard. This recording is a dud. That written, the assembled forces don’t quite manage to destroy the piece. If this was someone’s first exposure to the work, there’s enough to point to it being good. But this recording also presents an object lesson in the “You Get What You Pay For” philosophy. This is an ultra-bargain recording with no-names across the board, and everything is sub-par. Even at the (hopefully very) low asking price, it’s not worth it. I got to hear it for free and still feel a little cheated.

    It’s been years since last I listened to Murray Perahia’s recording of this work, paired with Bernard Haitink and his Concertgebouw Orchestra. My memory of the recording was that it possessed a certain polish, with superb orchestral playing, but lacked the type of energy and drive I generally seek. Well, listening again years later reinforces some of those memories, but also changes some. At first the Allegro seems to reinforce everything: the orchestral opening is a bit soft and broad, and Perahia’s playing, while undeniably smooth and tonally attractive, is small in scale and a bit lacking in drive. However, the orchestral interlude is more forceful (though I could have done with more), nicely precise, and supremely polished. (Too polished?) Perahia’s return is fine, with some superb, at times almost delicate trills, but again, he lacks something in the energy department. The left-right passage is very well done; it’s balanced, clear and attractive. The Grand Flourish is pretty good, too. It’s got some real heft and drive to it. Indeed, afterward, the energy level seems to pick up a bit. The Adagio opens with predictable lovely strings, and the band plays splendidly throughout. Perahia sounds a bit deliberate in his phrasing, though his clarity and tonal beauty deserve nothing but praise. This is a more abstract approach to this movement, though it may be possible, under the right circumstances, for one to swoon from the music making. Perahia opens the Rondo in quick, clear, and athletic fashion. That’s to say he’s not a powerhouse. Haitink leads his band admirably, coaxing enough drive and energy from the ensemble without ever overpowering the soloist. Everything seems better matched, better suited to the music. Perahia manages to marry his fine tone to just the right amount of drive throughout, and he sounds well equipped to handle the most challenging passages. So, in some ways this recording is better than I remembered it, though in some ways it’s just how I remembered it. It’s certainly a beautiful rendition of the work, and it generates enough excitement, especially in the last movement, but it nonetheless is something of an also-ran recording for me. There are certainly worse versions (see Capova), but there are also much better versions (see Zimerman). Others may very well like it more than I do, of course.

    The last version in this survey is the newest: Evgeny Kissin’s second recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is better in every way than the one Kissin made with James Levine in the ‘90s. In the Allegro, Davis leads a powerful opening and Kissin plays the cadenza slowly at the opening but quickly comes up to speed, while also ratcheting up the power. He does this a couple times, and his command is rather impressive. The orchestral interlude is very well done, with the Londoners’ playing both powerful and relaxed; they’re inside the music, as it were. Kissin’s return is supremely well played. His trills are outstanding, and he dashes off the most rapid playing with ease. He also seems to relish the slower music, lavishing attention on little details, playing with tempi and dynamics. Here one might find him a bit mannered, which he surely is, but one might also find him refreshingly individual. The slow playing after 6’ would be a good test of how one likes his style. It’s either exaggerated or insightful. Every listener would have to judge individually. The left-right passage is also outstanding, with great clarity and control of each part. Kissin again fools around with music a bit, elongating some phrases, shortening others, but it’s quite fine to listen to. The Grand Flourish starts slow but builds to a massive, fluid crescendo. Perhaps it’s a bit indulgent, but I like it. Kissin continues to tinker around the edges throughout the movement, something that some may find bothersome. The Adagio sounds coolly beautiful from the start, with notably “romantic” but restrained strings. Kissin opens quite deliberately but also quite delicately, mirroring the band’s approach. This restraint serves a purpose: there’s a gradual build up to the long trill run, which is absolutely stunning. The whole movement, rather like the Perahia effort, is a bit abstract, but it also more compelling. Kissin opens the Rondo with thunderous playing dashed off with obvious ease. If ever he completely let loose it would be something to hear! Davis responds by leading some potent, martial playing. And so it basically goes to the end: Kissin plays some particularly complex passage deftly, and so does the band. Never, not even once, does anything sound unpleasant. Kissin’s tone throughout is spectacularly good, and the orchestra sounds superb. (Arne Akselberg is one fine engineer.) Kissin assumes a more sonically dominant role than he would in concert, but that’s not too unusual in a recording. Kissin is less restrained, less contrived, and much more interesting in his second recording of the work. I wonder what his third recording will be like.

    Ten more recordings down, and this time it’s not a bad batch. Zimerman and Kempff both deliver outstanding readings, though the Kempff, in particular, has some short-comings. Kissin has started to deliver on his awesome promise in this music as well. The other recordings, the Capova aside, all work on some level and were well worth listening to at least once. This was a nicely successful batch for me. Perhaps a few more versions couldn’t hurt.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  4. #19
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    Yes, the Emperor is a very fine work. For years I loved the version made by Pollini on DG. For sheer individualism and drive Beethoven is certainly among the best. I used to say he was the Declaration of Independence in music !

    Honest, that Pollini recording is phenomenal, especially the slow movement. Anyway, you've listed quite a few and I like it so much also.

  5. #20
    Recruit, Pianissimo
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    Hi everyone,its my first in this forum!

    Dear Todd i have listened to the Pollini DG recording and i believe its exceptional.I also have bought Barenboim's dvd piano concerti cycle (2007) and i believe he is phenomenal.

    There is also his version with Abbado on youtube:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkGMzgGza-4

    I am looking forward to seeing your insightful comments!

  6. #21
    Admiral Maestoso marval's Avatar
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    Hi john1987,

    Welcome to the forum, this is a great place to be.

    Todd always gives us an interesting view of the music he listens to. Do join with your own views on any of the subjects discussed here.


    Margaret

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