The producer and engineer of this Lyrinx SACD, Rene Gambini, sets aside a page in the booklet to mention his discovery of Brauner Microphones, citing their neutrality and precision, allied with a liveliness and warmth akin to prestigious vintage mikes. It seems appropriate for this acknowledgement to be included, for whether intentional or accidental, this recording features performance, style, and sound that are closely allied. For those who like this intimate approach, this may prove to be a very treasureable disc. But it won’t appeal to everyone.
Myself, I was initially unenthused, starting my listening as I did with Beethoven’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’. This work is an old favorite of mine, but not because it is easy to bring off in performance – it isn’t – but it highlights the links between the young Beethoven and the concertos of his predecessor Mozart. One can hear Beethoven pick up Mozart’s ideas and try them on for size, only to find that not all of them are a good fit. But the attempted formal sweep of the first movement certainly points towards later, grander vistas, and the songful “Largo” is quite beautiful in its own right. Perhaps best of all is the playful rondo that ends the work with energy and wit. As the concerto opens with an orchestral statement of the first two themes, my first impression was of the orchestra and conductor. What was immediately evident was that this would be a fairly small-scale performance, and a rather reserved one at that. Granted, Beethoven doesn’t exactly give the orchestra stellar material to work with at the beginning of the piece, but Baudo and the orchestra seem little more than dutiful here, with somewhat square, uninflected playing. To listen to a master conductor make the most out of a mediocre passage of music, listen to the classic EMI recording by Emil Gilels, with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. Szell keeps a sense of anticipation in the music by making sure that the orchestra plays the rhythms with crisp precision and he gives every phrase a distinctive shape. Here, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic plays warmly and accurately, but without much flair. Pennetier’s first entrance livens things up, and the movement continues to improve from there. Again, though, the scale of the performance remains small, more reserved and clear than the tempestuous Gilels or the charming Rubinstein.
The slow movement which follows is more engaging, with Baudo stepping up nicely to make the first orchestral entrance sound like a coherent follow up to the piano’s poetic opening (something which as great a conductor as Erich Leinsdorf wasn’t able to accomplish in Rubinstein’s recording!). What I began to notice more at this point during my audition period were the richness of overtones of the piano sound, which certainly contribute to the sense of warmth in this movement. In the finale, Pennetier and Baudo play it very “straight”, missing a lot of the wit and charm that other performances have brought to it, particularly Gilels and Szell. I also have fond memories of the performance by Emmanuel Ax from the mid-1980’s on RCA, although he was let down by limp accompaniment from the Royal Philharmonic led by Andre Previn. The close, intimate balance of this recording does make it possible, however, to hear much of the interplay between orchestral instruments throughout the rondo, details that are usually lost in the wash of reverberation that plagues so many recordings.
After concentrating some time on the ‘Concerto No. 1’, I then moved on to the Beethoven ‘Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor’, and found myself getting much more excited. The orchestral exposition which opens this first movement is noticeably more distinguished than that of the earlier concerto, and it seems to inspire a greater concentration and involvement from Baudo and his orchestra. If Pennetier and Baudo still do not match the classic Gilels and Szell, here they hold their own admirably. Pennetier, too, seems more inspired by this work, and the movement builds up an effective intensity.
Now comes the gem of this recording: the “Largo” of the Third Concerto. This movement is arguably the greatest slow movement in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos, and it has not lacked for great performances in the past, particularly that of Stephen Kovacevich (although he was known as “Stephen Bishop” at that time) with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony, made in the early 1970’s for Philips. Also of note are such recordings as the Gilels with Szell, or even the EMI recording by Sviatoslav Richter and Riccardo Muti, although that latter partnering does not seem to have had much chemistry. However, here, Pennetier even outshines the formidable Kovacevich in a rendition that is so utterly plain spoken and sincere that questions of comparison fall away. All that remains is the genius of Beethoven. In the several times I have gone back to “spot check” various details on this recording, I have not been able to put on this track without playing it all the way through, so compelling and enchanting is the performance. The orchestra is likewise caught by the spirit of the movement – the famous passage where the piano weaves sonorous arpeggios while flute and bassoon duet over it, is simply enchanting. It is especially worth noting that the bassoon sound captured upon this SACD is remarkably airy and broad – could it be that the Monte Carlo Philharmonic is one of the world’s last orchestras to still use old French-style bassoons instead of the more modern, piercing German-style instruments? If this is a German-style bassoon, then the player does a masterful job coaxing such a gentle and warm sound from the instrument… but it is more than just the playing. I realized at this point how much the recording captures the pure, breathy timbres of the flute and bassoon, along with the overtone-rich chiming of the piano arpeggios. This movement is certainly Gambini’s triumph, where the close-up, intimate recording matches the unaffected artistry of the performance and proves that a plain, honest approach to both the performance and recording can go straight to the heart of great music. No gimmicks or grandstanding required.
The finale then takes off with an especially poised solo by Pennetier, showing that he can play with great wit when the spirit moves him. Baudo and the orchestra engagingly play off the soloist and each other, bringing the work to a very satisfying close. Pennetier is not radically different from the traditional approach here, but by playing it just a little slower than the average, he is able to clarify and sharpen the characterization of this movement. All in all, this is a notable performance of the work, particularly for those who want an intimate performance on modern instruments.
The CD layer of this recording is decent enough, but the real “flowering” of the up-close-and-personal engineering style comes on the DSD stereo SACD layer (this is not a multi-channel recording). The CD layer seems a bit plain and featureless in comparison. It is the high-resolution layer that captures instrumental colors so breathtakingly that you might think the orchestra and piano are in the room with you. The balance of the orchestra is closer than usual, so much so that one can occasionally hear the movements of musicians’ chairs. The piano is positioned even closer, giving a very wide piano effect for those who have their main speakers spread further apart than the width of an actual instrument. This closeness also means a bit of the thump of the Steinway piano’s mechanism can be heard, but the richness of the overtones makes it worthwhile. With such close miking, one does not get a strong profile of what the sound of the Salle Garnier in the Monte Carlo Opera is like, but it seems to be a clear, fairly dry acoustic.
Indeed, when I think of the slightly dry but warm acoustics, combined with the natural “flavor” of the instrumental timbres picked up here by the Brauner microphones, I am inclined to compare this recording to a fine Chardonnay. Some may prefer their Beethoven to be a little darker and earthier than that (and, often, I am one of them), and those listeners will do well to go with classic performances by Gilels and Kovacevich. I’ve given the disc a performance score of 80%, but judged individually the rendition of ‘Concerto No. 1’ attained a modest 60%, whilst ‘Concerto No. 3’ attained the lofty heights of 90%.
For those who don’t mind that the performance of the ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ is basically filler for a sincere, intimate recording of the ‘Piano Concerto No. 3’, then this recording will provide much pleasure.