Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos - Minnaar / de Vriend
Challenge Classics CC 72763 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos
Hannes Minnaar (piano)
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra
Jan Willem de Vriend (conductor)
Here is the box containing Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos performed by Hannes Minnaar and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jan Willem de Vriend. So far two single volumes had been issued: while the one including Concertos nos. 4 & 5 was acclaimed by Gramophone as: "beginning a Beethoven cycle with the Fourth and Fifth Concertos is a bold move but one that pays off in all sorts of ways", the same magazine welcomed the disc with Concertos nos. 1 & 2 for “its pleasing mix of finesse and drive”.
Now the box also offers the so far unissued Concerto no. 3.
Despite the very large number of recordings already made of this musical corpus, Minnaar and de Vriend have proved that they have something new and totally their own to say about this collection of masterpieces. And it is indeed the peculiar blend of sheer energy and esprit de finesse that can be identified as the distinctive brand or these recordings.
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 'Emperor'
Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 4, 2017
I’ve been following this remarkable musician for some years now, noting at every new release how quickly he developed as an artist. Real talent grows fast. But it needs a strong character and the right support and environment to survive. This Beethoven set proves that Minnaar is right on track to become the sort of musician music lovers dream about.
In my review of his first release in high resolution (Beethoven: 10 Violin Sonatas - van Keulen / Minnaar) I suggested that Minnaar, a new star in the making, was “showing respect towards an older colleague, taking the lead when asked for, leaving room for his partner whenever possible”. He seemingly didn’t want to be an ‘imposing’ partner. In my second review (Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 - Minnaar / de Vriend) Vol. 1 of the Beethoven set, I signaled that “Power play doesn’t seem to be Minnaar’s trade” and pointed at “the stimulating input of Jan Willem de Vriend”, resulting in a perfectly balanced and memorable performance. A winning couple, one might say. Equals at work.
As his star continued to rise, things started to further mature as shown in the next Beethoven volume (Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Minnaar / de Vriend). His growing artistic charisma became a factor of inspiration for others: “Here we have a soloist playing with an orchestra, rather than an orchestra playing for a soloist”. I must assume that thanks to nature and understanding of Jan Willem de Vriend, whose mildly idiosyncratic style I have come to appreciate over the years, this once again led to a perfect and mutually respected harmonious unity, stemming, as I see it, from a consistent feeling that music always comes first.
With this new set in front of me, and now listening to Beethoven’s third piano concerto, I can confidently say that Minnaar, 3 years since, has reached the coveted level of confirmed personality, able to put a superbly well-judged stamp on a common reading of all concerned, demanding my respect, as well, as I’m sure, from many of an almost over crowded field of top competitors.
As I have commented on the separate volumes containing 1, 2, 4, and 5, I will limit myself here to Concerto 3, Op. 37, occupying a single disc (CD 2, out of three) with a total time of no more than 34:40. Thus leaving ample space to include, for instance, the Triple Concerto, in which Minnaar could have been joined by his Van Baerle Trio partners. Challenge Classics has decided otherwise. And looking at it as a set, we must admit that other sets consist of three discs as well, with mostly The Emperor covering the single one. Though realizing that many will be disappointed, I’m perfectly happy having extended silence after the third concerto to let the musical thrill linger on for a while. Besides, we already have a hardly to be bettered Challenge Classics recording of the Triple Concerto with De Vriend, the same orchestra and the Storioni’s as solo team.
Were Nos. 1 and 2 still written in the tradition of Mozart’s mature output, with his Third Beethoven entered into a new era, taking Mozart’s piano concerto KV 491 only as a model and point of departure for developing his own musical thoughts. Although 4 and 5 are seen as the culmination, some, like me, have a soft spot for 3. The outer movements are full of heroic drama, wit and virtuosity, whereas the second movement, with its inward looking intimate emotion is, in my view, almost and perhaps with a possible exception for the beautiful adagio in the fifth, second to none.
Right from the start De Vriend sets the heroic tone. I simply love his brass and kettles. Although De Vriend has in the meantime moved to his new home (The Hague Philharmonic) the completing disc is still with his former Netherlands Symphony Orchestra from the Eastern part of the Netherlands, which he has so expertly remodeled into a hybrid HIP band, replacing the brass with valve less period instruments, using sticks for the tympani and letting the strings play without vibrato.
During the first 111 measures, the soloist bides his time. But when Minnaar finally enters, it is in a decisive way. From there on he is the engine, with an exceptional mix of mastery and complicity. The expression ‘hand in glove’ springs to mind, where Minnaar is the hand and De Vriend c.s. the glove. Together they present an almost impossible to duplicate sound image with a modern (specially tuned) grand and a full symphony orchestra in historical mode. In Beethoven’s piano concerti the first movements are always the longest, but these more than 17 minutes of glorious playing are gone far too quickly. Usually a good sign, and it is. The cadenza is Beethoven’s, but the execution is thoroughly Minnaar’s.
In the second movement, we enter a world of enchanting magic. Minnaar complies with full expression, fluent tenderness and strong imagination. His 'toucher' is elegant yet decisive. Starting with pensive sensitivity, framed in an embracing orchestral support, building into emotional momentum and ending in loving kindness.
The concluding rondo is flashed in a whirlwind of colours and shades. It is as martial as it is uplifting. An astounding combination. De Vriend is at the helm and Minnaar is the captain, both contributing to painting a sunny-side-of-the-street picture with melodies that won’t easily leave your head afterwards. After Minnaar’s short cadenza the final movement comes to a brilliant end.
The big question now is, how does Minnaar & Co measure up to the (fierce) competition? For comparison I brought to the surface the early, much acclaimed 1983 Philips CD stereo set with Alfred Brendel and the Chicago Symphony / Levine (which I find - in artistic sense - better than the later one with the Vienna Philharmonic / Rattle). Both sets are different. In the first place, as said above, De Vriend’s marked, personal vision, so evidently shared by Minnaar, as well as the hybrid sound image; something that no one else has (Note: Brautigam’s set is totally ‘period’). The Chicago Symphony has its solid and exclusive American sound, but nowadays feels a bit dated and Levine’s conducting is, to modern ears, heavier and with slower tempi, but all the same of great manufacture .
As for the soloist: Brendel, already widely respected at that stage in his career, automatically draws attention. His playing surely appeals to everyone appreciating the Vienna touch with a technically well-polished approach, his often light 'toucher' giving at times the feeling that he is dusting the keys. Minnaar is more a combination of a sober Northerly perfectionist with exiting French flair, (compare his wonderful solo disc Fauré: Piano Music - Minnaar) both characteristics intertwiningly co-existing in his Beethoven. Taken all these elements together, I’d say that this set is hardly comparable with anyone else’s. It has a value on its own. At least that is how I see it and how I like it.
Are there no issues? As in most other sets, there are, depending on how you look at, or rather listen to it. Some may find that in the tuttis the orchestral balance between the violins and the wood winds is less expressive as one would expect and whished for from a more period oriented orchestra. Matter of taste, as always. Nothing to be too worried about. Many may not even notice it.
In conclusion: On the whole a fine set, with one more thing that few have: An exquisite sound quality. A not to be neglected asset for all those in the Hi-Res league. Bert van der Wolf of North Star Recording Services being your constant guarantor.
Finally, it may be worth mentioning that concerto 3 is available separately from Challenge Records as ‘digital download only’. But then the price is a bit steep for 34 + minutes. So, my advice: Buy the set at a special price from our trusted partners.
New Arts International inform me that a seperate disc with the 3rd piano concerto is now available in a limited quantity on their site for a special price: http://www.challengerecords.com/products/14936496575388/
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