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Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Minnaar / de Vriend

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Minnaar / de Vriend

Challenge Classics  CC 72712

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2

Hannes Minnaar (piano)
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra
Jan Willem de Vriend (conductor)


Before we listen to the young Dutch pianist Hannes Minnaar play Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, it is perhaps interesting to see how another young pianist may have played them once, long ago – a German who lived in Vienna, a headstrong and temperamental genius. His name? Ludwig van Beethoven. His pupil, the famous composer of etudes and sensitive observer Carl Czerny, once described his playing: “[...] characterised by passionate strength, alternated with all the charm of a smooth cantabile. The expressiveness is often intensified to extremes, particularly when the music tends towards humour [...] Passages become extremely daring by use of the pedal [...] His playing does not possess that clean and brilliant elegance of certain other pianists. On the other hand, it was spirited, grand and, especially in the adagio, filled with emotion and romanticism.” Strength. Smoothness. Humour. Focus on these aspects and you will come close to Beethoven.

Minnaar, De Vriend and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra play the concertos in reverse order: first 2, then 1.Artistically, it is highly defensible: introduced as it were by the more balanced, more modest Piano Concerto no. 2, no. 1 radiates all the more festiveness (trumpets, clarinets and tympani have come to join the orchestra). Perhaps the lovely, gentle, almost feminine B flat major of Concerto no. 2 would not have been able to hold its own after the male and martial C major. But there is something else. You see, Piano Concerto no. 2 actually came first. It was composed earlier, at least in its initial version.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - February 9, 2016

Looking at the cover it may seem like a bad omen: Jan Willem de Vriend, Chef of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra turning his back on soloist Hannes Minnaar. I ignore any deeper artistic thinking behind it, but as far as the music is concerned I can wholeheartedly assure potential buyers that this second Volume of the complete Beethoven piano concerti is every bit as good as the first. For best listening I suggest -neighbours permitting- turning up the volume somewhat more than usual to be completely submerged by the supreme sound, letting you savour to the fullest extent the extraordinary musicianship of all concerned. The recording can easily handle it. Need I say more?

For those who haven’t read my comments concerning Volume 1, let me briefly repeat some of it: Minnaar is an up and coming pianist from Holland, 3rd laureate at the 2010 ‘Concours Reine Elisabeth’, Brussels, and gaining in prominence in Europe & beyond ever since. His style may perhaps best be characterized as sensitively romantic, musically inventive, with much tonal beauty and fluent precision. Power play doesn’t seem to be Minnaar’s prime trade; his ‘power’ comes from well-chosen accentuation and subtle shifting from piano to forte, adequately supported and, where needed, intensified by de Vriend.

The liner notes make a point of the order in which the concerti have been set to disk. Although one can play any of the two at any one time, practice has it that, indeed, in most cases both will automatically be played after one another. Changing the order by playing 2 first is, therefore, well judged as No. 2 is closer to the traditional, classical form, whereas No. 1 is much more elaborate and mature. Moreover, as noted in the same notes, 2 is, in its basic concept, older than 1.

However, Beethoven kept on tinkering with no.2 until he got it right in its present, most likable form, with, as most striking difference with the original(s), the total replacement of the final rondo by another one, introducing syncopated rhythms like, in those days, no one but Beethoven would have dared to do. For me, this ‘makes’ the concerto, and together with the delightful first and charming second movement, characterizing no. 2 -judged by Beethoven not to be one of his best!- as the almost perfect appetizer of what is to follow. Especially the way it’s performed under the delicate hands of Hannes Minnaar.

Beethoven’s much bolder First in C major crowns this Volume. As said elsewhere, the attraction of the performance lies in its honesty. Minnaar doesn’t add to, nor subtract anything from the score; all he does is making it as transparent as possible, thereby greatly helped by Jan Willem de Vriend and his orchestra. With neither obstinate historical nor profoundly mysterical practices, he delivers all the same a thorough and finely tuned 19th century orchestral sound.

The lengthy introduction sets the scene for Minnaar’s entrée: Measured, precise; never ‘over done’ and yet immediately engaging. He is not ‘up-front’ but remains part of the total soundstage, as befits his elegant modesty.

At the end of the first movement Minnaar plays Beethoven’s own, close to five minutes long and difficult cadenza, qualified by Stephen Hough as “an insanely exuberant example of how he might have sounded when improvising”, taking the considerable risk of breaking up the flow of the music. However, he does so in such a way that it adds to the momentum, building up tension towards a powerful conclusion. I should add that in doing so, Minnaar demonstrates at the same time being perfectly capable to driving his Grand to its limits whenever required.

After an Adagio of endless beauty, played with sensitivity and a healthy measure of understatement, Minnaar & Co follow with a brilliantly uplifting Rondo Allegro molto, pulling all the stops, with once again syncopating down beat rhythms, finally coming to a glorious conclusion with jubilant, brass on historical instruments and rattling kettle drums.

Here we have a soloist playing with an orchestra, rather than an orchestra playing for a soloist, and the combined effort under de Vriend’s inspirational baton makes it virtually impossible not to like these two performances. Are we witnessing an alternative hybrid top choice of a new, monumental Beethoven piano concerto cycle in the making? I believe and, awaiting the final installment, sincerely hope so!

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2016 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by hiredfox - March 22, 2016 (1 of 1)

I will listen again but not the inspiring performances that we might have expected after the acclaim afforded the earlier disc in this survey. The best way to sum them up for me is underwhelming, the orchestra is hesitant in places and sometimes they and the soloist seem to be following different ideas, there is little in the way of synergism to lift these performance above the ordinary.