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Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5 - Ohlsson, Runnicles

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5 - Ohlsson, Runnicles

Reference Recordings  FR-751SACD (3 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5, Creatures of Prometheus overture

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra
Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor)

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 14, 2023

Issuing a complete set of Piano concerti of a composer of the stature of Ludwig van Beethoven is an act of great courage. Even if we try to restrict the number to those that have appeared as a set on SACD, it still is over 22. Deducting reissues of non-hi-res originals brings us to a more manageable number of 6 to choose from, this one included. Arguably a crooked yardstick. As if new is always better. There must be something else. If you are a first-time buyer you might select one with a great review. But there are so many having been well received over the years. Another help is: Played by someone you know or recommended by a friend. Regular visitors to this site will surely want a recording with the highest sound quality. And collectors may find satisfaction in getting a set played by their favourite artist, no matter the reviews or sound quality. If none of it applies, it becomes like searching for a needle in a haystack.

But there is another way of looking at it. Some recordings, so it would seem to me, have not been made with commercial reasons as a prime objective. They were made out of love for the music and feelings of complicity by the performers. I think that this new release falls in that category, deserving, therefore, our close attention. Moreover, such motivation does not ask for nor require a detailed analysis of each concerto and each movement therein (lucky me). With that in mind, I’d restrict myself to the intention, the human factor and the overall mood in which this project was brought about, and subsequently, why it is so special.

What the Verbier Festival is for Europe, is (though not a copy-paste affair) the Grand Teton Music Festival in North America (GTMF). Teton Village is a lovely mountain resort in the Rockies, near Jackson, Wyoming. Concerts are given in the Walk Festival Hall in Jackson Hole, WY. Apart from being a festival, as there are many other summer get-togethers for musicians and audiences, both play a wider role in musical life, like providing a breeding ground for young and upcoming talent. What sets GTMF apart is that we are dealing with a (and I quote from their website): “super group of more than 220 classical musicians from 75 major orchestras and 55 education institutions around the world (performing) eight weeks of symphonic and chamber music concerts in GTMF’s acclaimed Walk Festival Hall”. Impressive! Well, we are in The States.

Against this background, which is, as I said before, more educational than commercial, the result must be judged accordingly. Long-standing giants like Sir David Runnicles and Garrick Ohlsson, don’t have to prove anything anymore. Their extensive and rewarding international careers say it all. No longer dependent on the moods of critics, they can be themselves and, as we may assume, support wholeheartedly the stars of today and those of tomorrow, making the GTMF one of the finest festivals around. The younger generation is embedded by selected first desks, staffed by principals of major (American) orchestras, and the Concertmaster, David Coucheron, joining in from the same position he has with the Atlanta Symphony. A pretty promising band, I’d say.

So, what are they capable of doing? Don’t expect an ‘angry young men’ performance. For these recordings, technical assistance was provided by music producer Vic Muenzer from Chicago and, among other engineers, Zen Mastering from Vancouver. Using the acoustics of the Walk Festival Hall, the 55-strong orchestra come across as a lush sound body with lots of dark colours. (Five contra-basses on stage). This is, therefore, not for historically informed addicts nor for those speed lovers, who generously allow the soloist to go back home on the previous train.

This is more Beethoven from Memory Lane. Not as heavy-handed as in the sixties, though. Some may call it ‘middle of the road’, but that has a bit of ‘one size fits all’ around it and that is certainly not the case. Garrick Ohlsson’s playing is as good as a Brendel, Kovacevich, or Arrau.

What we get is the fruit of a week’s labour, or should I say ‘joy’, which is condensed and now contained in a 3-SACD’s box, for us to savour. Some will say that there are better sets around and I admit to having a soft spot for Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 4 - Nakamichi / Järvi. But this one is special and clearly good enough for Reference Recordings to issue it in the Fresh! series.

I do hope that many will want to have it, if only with the noble purpose of supporting the future of what this is all about: The pleasure of music-making at the highest level!

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Comment by hiredfox - May 18, 2023 (1 of 4)

Thanks for your excellent review Adrian. No mention was made of Sound Mirror in your review?

This begs the question of recording format used as the names mentioned in connection with the recording are not ones I recognise.

Runnicles and Ohlsson would be regarded as B listers in the scheme of things which doesn't mean necessarily that they cannot deliver outstanding performances but with so much choice of these concerti on SACD this set would need to be exceptional to warrant serious interest; I am not getting that vibe from your review.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - May 18, 2023 (2 of 4)

Indeed, John, no Soundmirror. Original Recording Format: PCM 192 kHz. Hence half a star missing. As I suggested, this release is not meant to supersede your best choice.

Comment by Steven Harrison - May 20, 2023 (3 of 4)

I have attended many a concert at the Grand Teton Music Festival, when I used to live and work in Wyoming. Every concert was wonderful. Walk festival hall has a lot going for it, both in the sound and viewing of the orchestra. I have met and had discs signed by no less that Yevgeny Sudbin and Stephen Hough, when they were the guest artists. The concerts are recorded and played back on Wyoming Public Radio. This is the first commercial recording by the festival orchestra. It is worthy of our support, just for the love of the music and musicians who come and play at this festival year after year after year. And there is always room on the rack for another set of this wonderful music.

Comment by Steven Harrison - July 16, 2023 (4 of 4)

I have this one now. And it is just simply wonderful in every respect, especially the sound.
As mentioned earlier I have attended many a concert at the Grand Teton Festival when I lived in Western Wyoming and would make the 3 hour drive to Jackson for the concerts. The sound at Walk Festival Hall was always excellent. Nice to hear that same excellence in these recordings.
Also nice to read that this release has been so well received at Gramophone, with an Editor's Choice, and at Presto, with a Top 25 seller in June.
Hopefully there will be more sacd's in the future too.