The first time I heard Pablo Heras-Casado conduct an orchestra in a live performance was during a concert he gave with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2018. It was a splendid performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elias, which made a strong impression on me as I was struck by the osmosis between the musicians and the conductor, and how economic his gestures were. After their successful collaboration on their Schumann and Mendelssohn’s albums, their new project is focused on Beethoven, whose 250th anniversary is celebrated in 2020. Their recent Beethoven recordings have confirmed that the collaboration between the Spanish conductor and the German period ensemble is a match made in heaven. I was particularly impressed by their recent interpretation of Beethoven’s Coriolan, Piano concerto n°4 with the South African fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. This album is part of a complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano concertos, the project of which was initiated during a tour the fortepianist did with Heras-Casado and the orchestra in 2015.
In the booklet accompanying the album, Bezuidenhout explains that « by the end of the project, which culminated in a performance of all five concertos over two nights, our feeling was unanimous: nothing could have prepared us for how wildly demanding and uncompromising this music is. The fact that it stretches one to the very limits of technical and emotional possibility, and pushes one to extremes of physical endurance, would no doubt have delighted Beethoven. » Bezuidenhout perfectly captures the spirit of this music, which requires from the performers to give everything they have, technically, intellectually and spiritually. Beethoven was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and was an « ardent supporter of the revolutionary cause » and the struggle of the French revolutionaries, and he transposed this revolutionary spirit and sense of struggle against the existing order into his music.
Over a century after Beethoven’s death, another revolution shook the world of classical music, the revolution of period-instrument performance, which not only open the doors of a long-forgotten pre-romantic repertoire, but also entirely changed our approach to the interpretation of famous works such as Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos: « In place of the sustained, rich, legato sounds of modern chamber orchestras performing Bach and Vivaldi, period instrument bands brought transparency, short-breathed phrasing and sharp articulation. Not everyone liked this change: tussling with the challenges of “original instruments” was a controversial activity, and to many established musicians, deeply unwelcome. » (Nicolas Kenyon, Bach to the future : how period performers revolutionised classical music, The Guardian, 2019). Pioneered by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock and John Eliot Gardiner in the 1960s and 1970s, nowadays the period-instrument performance tradition is championed by younger generations of musicians like Pablo Heras Casado and Kristian Bezuidenhout.
I have rarely heard such a lean, dramatic interpretation of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, which has « the sinister grace of a panther about to pounce », as Patrick Rucker so aptly noticed in Gramophone Magazine. The fast tempi chosen by the conductor in this overture give a sense of urgency that befits the narrative structure of this tragic work. In the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, « Heras-Casado’s poised but light-footed rhythmic acumen combines with his inerrant instinct for the perfectly sculpted, living, breathing phrase, to create strikingly original interpretations to be savoured with gusto. » (Patrick Rucker, Gramophone Magazine, September 2020).
The pièce de résistance of the album is the performance of Beethoven’s Piano concerto n°4. After experimenting with different instruments, Bezuidenhout eventually decided on a « bright-toned but richly colourful and singing Graf copy (Rodney Regier, 1989) », which he used to record the whole cycle, and which sounds absolutely marvelous, at least as far as I am concerned, as I can understand that some listeners may prefer the sound of a modern piano to that of a fortepiano, which can sound tinkling and grating. The whole point of period-instrument performances is to provide us with a fresh perspective on musical works we think we know and open up our ears to different soundscapes rather than to an authentic experience, which is by definition illusory. I personally consider that the interest and great advantage of historically informed performances is that they give the listener a better understanding of the works performed, giving us access to more detail and nuance than performances on modern instruments, which can give the impression of being relatively thick and round. The interpretation of the piano concerto by Bezuidenhout, Heras Casado and the musicians of the Freiburger Barockorchester is nimble, light-footed, profondly joyfull in the Allegro moderato and the Rondo, while the Andante con moto, which is often considered to be « a musical metaphor for Orpheus at the gates of Hades », has nobility and grandeur, thanks to the dialogue between the remarkably irate and austere sound strings and the exceptionally soft, plaintive and poignant sound of piano.
Overall this album, and the other two installments of this new recorded cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos, are a welcome addition to a vast discography and demonstrate that period performers are the most stimulating champions of Beethoven’s music.