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Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 3 with a multitude of extras
François-René Duchâble & Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson
November 2002, Versailles Opera Royal [Double DVD TT: approx 5 hours] (UK Distributor Select)

Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403002 (5 hours)

*See below for notes on the equally recommendable Double DVDs which were received later, one box with Beethoven Concertos 2 & 4 (Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403003 - 5½ hours) and the other devoted to No 5 The Emperor (Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403004 - 4½ hours).

Here is a landmark 2004 state-of-the-art DVD with multiple approach extras.

But importantly first, these are excellent performances of the concertos on a Steinway and with a small orchestra, as Beethoven would have been used to. They are filmed in a gorgeous venue and we are given a fascinating tour of Versailles and its opera house.

Even if you have recently added to your collections versions by Schnabel (Naxos) and Aimard/Harnoncourt (DG) you should not hesitate to acquire these.

The listings on the illustrations below give the details of all that is on offer and whatever your level of knowledge of, and familiarity with, these key canonic masterworks, there will be a lot to learn and savour. François-René Duchâble is a fine, insightful Beethoven pianist and the interview and rehearsal sequences display his boundless energy and enthusiasm, and capacity to communicate in words and at (two) keyboards. He demonstrates on a Stein fortepiano alongside the Steinway, discussing his decisions about articulation and dynamics in key passages. The rapport with the conductor John Nelson is palpably close and the rehearsal sequences show how a performance is built.

For one movement there is the score to follow, picking out clearly what is important moment to moment. Another demonstrates the option of a choice of four viewing angles to change at whim, and through producer Etienne Collard you gain insight into the complicated technology employed. Sound and visuals are exemplary and navigation through the many choices on the menu is easy.

I have followed the gradual development of CD-extras and CD-ROM releases with appreciation of how much more they offer than plain CD recordings. Amongst the pioneers were MusicNow's CD-extras featuring Brian Dennis and Hugh Shrapnel, DG's Beethoven sonatas (Pollini) with the scores to follow on screen, József Eötvös' Goldberg Variations on guitar and Monte Stone's remarkable Ring Disc, which provides text and score to accompany Solti's complete recording of Wagners tetralogy, all on one crammed disc. Each of those is strongly recommended to collectors interested in developing technology, but in some ways this Ambroisie Beethoven exploration caps them all.

Beethoven's piano concertos Nos 2 & 4 are also available on Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403003 and I look forward to reviewing those, and No 5 in due course, and discovering whether they offer more and different special features to enjoy.

Concertos 2 & 4 (Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403003 - 5½ hours)
No 5 The Emperor (Ambroisie Interactive AMI 99403004 - 4½ hours)

* *The three double DVDs of the Beethoven piano concertos are being released individually, but really they are a set and should be treated as a whole. There is only a little duplication of some of the extra features, not enough to be off-putting, and the movements selected for special treatment are different and the interviews with Duchâble and Nelson are focussed upon individual concertos. In the box with concertos Nos 2 & 4, the interviews with conductor and pianist (separately) are informative and interesting, even if you know the music well.

You gradually come into the aura of these two very photogenic musicians, who are also natural in manner and good to watch in action; you get to know them alongside getting to know Beethoven better. Duchâble gets carried away with relevant thoughts and can illustrate any idea which comes up instantly at the keyboard. In his talk about Concerto No 2, he tells us that attacca joins to next movements are a great way to stop the audiences coughing "to prove to themselves that they are still alive"! And he gives a fascinating demonstration of his approach to pedalling in the improvisatory passages, switching to a Stein fortepiano to indicate how it might have sounded in contemporary performances.

There are discussions of many thorny topics; their choice of modern instruments, but both stylistically aware and demonstrably at one, a comfortable partnership. And the "Mannheim" sized orchestra, as used by Beethoven.

This is predominantly a didactic enterprise, but what is good to report is how excellent are these filmed performances without audience - fully competitive with many strong contenders in the CD stakes, and all the better for being able to watch the music being played, that topic another which is discussed. I felt that the orchestra might have wished to applaud, as no-one else was present to represent us, the invisible audience!

The Emperor box includes Fifteen questions for François-René Duchâble, a longer and at times surprising téte à téte with this 'consciously visual artist' in his prime. This is an absorbing and moving interview in which we get to know about his early life with general schooling at home and rigorous piano training - he was a laureate in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels (11th prize, 1968, when Mitzuko Uchida was 10th!) - and his subsequent disillusionment with his profession. We see him at home surrounded by his huge collection of historic pianos, get to understand how he feels and thinks at the peak of a lonely, ultimately unsatisfying career, and we learn, to our incredulity, that he had chosen to take 'early retirement' at around 50 from the treadmill life of a concert pianist in 2003. He has ended his career as a public artist with this set of DVDs!

A complex and introspective personality, and lucid thinker about music and life, François-René Duchâble plans to get himself a new and different future, devoting some years to different interests and pursuits, including working with music in social fields with 'ordinary people' in schools and prisons, deploring the reality that classical music reaches and 'speaks to' so tiny a minority of the population. He does not rule out a possible return to the concert world, perhaps say at 65! We must all hope that he will be persuaded to change his mind.

Every year is a Beethoven year! I have recently reviewed radical re-interpretations of the concertos by Aimard with Harnoncourt, and refreshed my memory of Schnabel's Beethoven in fine Naxos transfers. Last month I received interesting "historical" Beethoven concerto performances by John Ogdon (a brusque, no-nonsense Emperor) and another Emperor by the young Barenboim with the aged Klemperer, coupled with the Choral Fantasia (EMI); far more rewarding.

All have their places, but really none of them holds a candle to the total effect, plus learning opportunities, which Duchâble, Nelson and the technical team, headed by originator and director Christian Girardin, bring to this wonderful audio-visual Beethoven project.


© Peter Grahame Woolf