BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major Op. 15
Piano Concerto No, 5 in E-flat Major Op.73 “Emperor”
Eugene Albulescu (piano/conductor)
Orchestra of Friends
(Recorded January 12th 2020,
Baker Hall, Zoeliner Arts Centre, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA)
It’s a measure of the remarkable staying power of Beethoven’s music that new performances and recordings of works that many of us know so well through having heard them countless times over the years simply keep coming (and show no signs of abating two hundred and fifty years after the composer’s birth). Having recently heard a good deal of the New Zealand String Quartet’s acclaimed traversal of the great man’s works in that genre, I can directly testify as to the music’s almost uncanny capacity for renewal – “forever contemporary” as Igor Stravinsky once said of one of these pieces, the “Grosse Fugue” op. 133, a description that, although specifically intended, suggests also something of the capacity of most of Beethoven’s music to speak directly to us, free from time, place or convention.
So, when I heard of Eugene Albulescu’s recording of two of the piano concertos (both of which, incidentally, the pianist directs from the keyboard), I was immediately interested. I’d experienced at first hand his playing in concert during those years he’d spent in New Zealand (his family had emigrated from Roumania in 1984), and had previously reviewed at least two of his earlier recordings, including an astonishing Liszt recital, released on the Ode/Manu label, one which won the young pianist the Grand Prix du Disque Liszt in 1994. He’d by then left these shores, going to Indiana University to study with Edward Auer, and graduating in 1994; and he’s since performed in various places around the world, as a solo pianist, chamber musician and conductor, establishing himself firmly in the United States with successful concert appearances and radio broadcasts. He’s currently a Professor of Piano on the music faculty at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
Albulescu’s orchestra in this recording is described as the “Orchestra of Friends”, which suggests a “pick-up” group, though in fact it’s an ensemble associated with the University made up largely of players who had recently worked together with the pianist/conductor on another performance project, so that they were more than usually “in accord” with one another for the Beethoven sessions. In a fascinating essay presented in the booklet accompanying the disc, Albulescu outlines his “history” of contact with the concertos, involving his taking three different roles in performing them at various times – as soloist, as conductor, and as a soloist/conductor – which for him has shaped and formulated many insights and attitudes towards the music and its performance over the years. I was delighted to learn of his association with another advocatee of the practice of “conducting from the keyboard”, one of my all-time pianistic heroes, Paul Badura-Skoda, whom I never heard play “in the flesh”, alas, but who was the pianist who “introduced” me to Beethoven via his recordings of a number of the piano sonatas during the 1960s..
Albulescu stresses at one point in the essay (in all its parts it’s an absorbing “read”) that his attitude towards performing these works as a soloist/conductor wasn’t designed to eschew or even undermine the role of a conductor in performances of these works, but merely to explore the processes of music-making and its effect on the work when soloist and conductor are one and the same. Implementing this practice certainly seems to me to make a radical shift in terms of weighting the music’s basic message, not so much in the two earlier Beethoven works, but very much so in the more romantic and dramatic theatres of exchange presented by the later concerti. Even so, I find myself taking some issue with Albulescu’s subsequent characterisation of a separate conductor’s presence in performance of these works as an “interference”, further compounded by what he terms the “non-playing” contribution of the latter (which then raises an age-old point of discussion regarding a conductor’s “influence” upon sounds made by his or her musicians!). I agree regarding the likelihood of a performance’s “unity of vision” being easier to realise under the control of a single interpreter, but would also argue that the alternative – a creative partnership between a soloist and conductor – can bring just as fascinating outcomes and rewards to concerto performances.
But this is supposed to be a review rather than any kind of dissertation on MY part – so I’ll forego any further comment along these lines and concentrate henceforth on the music-making on the disc! For the most part I found these totally engaging performances, presented in fresh, crisp and immediate sound whose touch of dryness makes for a degree of clarity that allows us to enjoy all the more these players’ distinctive orchestral textures – the timpani rolls are especially “present”, as opposed to the indistinct rumble we often hear in recordings. Albulescu’s own playing is characterful from the outset, his phrasings having a spring and urgency that suggests pulsating life rather than something on any kind of safe, “middle-of-the-road” course. One senses a truly symbiotic partnership between players, such as the horns’ exchanges with the soloist just before the first movement’s recapitulation, full of poised, deliciously- sprung expectation – or the way the ensemble builds the excitement in the leadup to the first movement cadenza. Incidentally what a cadenza this was! – no less than the third Beethoven had written for the concerto, and written much later than the other two (I thought it was possibly the pianist’s own, until I read the booklet notes more carefully!). It certainly encapsulates a somewhat transcendent mood compare with the remainder of the movement, though the performance had, in a retrospective sense, already prepared the way for something special to happen at this point.
Perhaps the slow movement’s ambience took a while to counter the sound’s dryness but the playing still resonates amply throughout – and the resulting instrumental clarity allows the listener full awareness of the detailings and dovetailings that give the music so much inner life. It’s not exactly “innigkeit”, here, but something fresher, a living flow, an eagerness to communicate which I found myself constantly aware of and relishing to the full. Came the finale, however, and I confess I was initially taken aback at the brusqueness of the piano’s introduction, Albulescu’s energies driving the figurations past the point of carefree fun towards and into a “Rage over a Lost Penny”-like urgency. While perhaps compelling in itself, it imparts for me an “edge” to the light-hearted theme which I’m still not entirely used to at this stage, preferring far more of a sense of fun and delicious interplay between piano and orchestra. Albulescu’s players are, however, with him all the way, grandly introducing the solo cadenza, then at the very end, bidding the piano a fond farewell, then abandoning the instrument altogether in their final tutti, given here with loads of panache.
So to the “Emperor” – and here was grandeur aplenty right from the start, the orchestral chording rich and sonorous, the replying piano flourishes combining flair, excitement, energy, control and quixotic impulse. The allegro sets off with no-nonsense singularity which burgeons into detailed purpose as the music broadens its scope, though still keeping the forward thrust to the fore even as the different instrumental groups strut their bounteous stuff. With the piano’s entry, Albulescu establishes his credentials as a worthwhile keyboard partner in the journey ahead, working hand-in-glove with the ensemble, bringing out the “character” of each episode, and maintaining that inexorable sense of forward movement that marks any “great” Beethoven interpretation.
And it’s a momentous journey, filled with the drama of both collaboration and confrontation during moments when imposing brass and timpani join forces to “slug it out” with the soloist, hammering single notes back-and-forth at one another in a trial of endurance, before the combatants regroup their forces and come out together with a reprise of the concerto‘s opening! This and other exchanges seem to me tailor-made for a test of different wills exemplified by piano and orchestra with soloist and conductor respectively, the ensuing confrontations causing sparks to fly, points of view to be contrasted, bargains to be struck and dovetailings to come together, a process that advances the music’s drama and resolutions in a properly full-blooded way. But Albulescu and his players also keep such potentialities open throughout, holding nothing back on either the piano’s or orchestra’s side and setting impulse against impulse in a convincingly dramatic manner, the piano by turns strong, spiky and combatative to the end, and the orchestra equally sonorous and responsive in reply!
After the energies, storms and rapprochements of the first movement, the Adagio un poco moto exudes a welcome calmness and serenity at its opening, Abulescu and his players giving the floating lines plenty of play over a strong, spacious undertow that keeps things constantly interactive, connected the whole time to terra firma with those beautiful wind and brass realisations suggesting a kind of replenishment of the spirit by nature. Having experienced the relative severity of the treatment given the C Major Concerto’s finale by these musicians, I was wondering whether a similarly “edgy” spirit would be unleashed by the players here, and couldn’t help a feeling of sharp-edged expectation hanging about the opening, the strains of the finale’s theme “plucked from the ether” so magically by the piano……
At the beginning Albulescu’s vigorously-propelled, somewhat angular projection of the theme on the piano suggested various kinds of feelings regarding his intent and mood – was it natural exuberance, excitabililty or sheer devilment of purpose which fuelled such impulsiveness? As with the C Major Concerto’s finale, the pianist’s fingers imparted an “edge” to any sense of Olympian or Godlike ebullience or jocularity, here rather more appropriately suggesting perhaps serious intent in itself, or else intended as a “foil” to some of the movement’s contrasting episodes. We heard gentler tones sound the ringing of the key-changes throughout the central sequences, for instance, delivered by the pianist with grace and charm, before bigger-boned phrasing introduced the vigorous minor-key section which then tremulously and radiantly blossoms into a shared paean of exuberant praise of existence itself as the opening piano theme returns. Finally, the beginning of the movement’s coda is here so beautifully crepuscular in its realisation, pianist/conductor and timpanist capturing a sense of spacious resonance that one imagines as gently undulating throughout a cosmos stirred and shaken by a unique creative exuberance – one which bursts out over the final bars of the work in a vigorous exchange of life-affirmations!
Despite the quibbles, there’s no doubt in my mind that with this disc Eugene Albulescu has triumphantly demonstrated, together with his intrepid band of excellent players, that these oft-played and recorded works can still surprise, startle and arrest the attention, with performances that both challenge and affirm, as well as surprise and delight. Having said all of this, I’m aware that the business of actually procuring the recording might well be an “easier said than done” process for anybody! Though the disc doesn’t appear to have found its way to Marbecks in Auckland, yet (or hadn’t the last time I checked), it does feature on Amazon –https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Concertos-Emperor-Eugene-Albulescu/dp/B08GMTSND4, – and there are these things called “downloads” which remain a mystery to me, as I’m firmly of the persuasion that still prefers a physical object such as a CD to the ephemeral idea of a download from the ether. This site seems to offer some help in this regard, though I’m not sure about purchasing any kind of product – but it does seem as though you can get to listen to the performances! The “link” I found to a site that promises a review AND the complete recording doesn’t seem active, but I found it on Google by typing “piano magazine Eugene Albulescu” – the rest is over to the intrepid and the fearless! Whatever it costs in effort or riches, the rewards are well worthwhile ……