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Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 1 & 3

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Pierre-Laurent Aimard/director/piano

Royal Festival Hall 21 April 2009

Better known perhaps for his innovative work with contemporary and 20th C music, Aimard has returned to the Beethoven concertos, after having played them with different conductors in the past (q.v. the 3rd with LPO & Metzmacher, and all 5 on CD with Harnoncourt & the Chamber Orchestra of Europe).

Now Pierre-Laurent Aimard has directed Nos 1 - 3 at the piano live (anticipating Barenboim's complete RFH cycle as pianist/conductor in January/February 2010 - tickets already on sale !) and this in a month which has seen the arrival of the first instalment of Artur Pizarro's complete recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, Nos. 3, 4 & 5 [Linn CKD 336].

In anticipation, Nos 2, 1 & 3 was not an attractive programme to be heard straight through, but as No 3 has always been a favourite of ours, we resisted the temptation to leave at the interval (which I had done not long ago, forsaking Aimard last year having found dix of Messiaen's Vingt Regards enough at one sitting...).

The audience tonight was quite modest, though probably enough to more than fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which might have been more suitable for these chamber-scale performances.

Aimard sat with his back to the audience, standing to conduct the tutti and with complete aplomb coping with page-turning whilst playing virtuosic passage work smoothly. The COE was based on 8,8,6.4,2 strings, with modern wind but period natural trumpets and timpani.

From our near front stalls seats the sound was clear and balance good, though how it reached listeners far back in the Rear Stalls I cannot tell. I took it that Aimard chose the earlier concertos, perhaps not having yet convinced himself that 4 & 5 are suitable for this treatment? *

These were all sound, satisfying performances, if without particularly noteworthy individuality. They were being recorded with enormous technical elaboration for BBC broadcasting (all in one evening, I hope not?).

There were more than a dozen microphones deployed, and great efforts were made to project the music into the auditorium by fitting a set of six sound deflectors over the piano strings (one of them aimed back to the listeners who filled the the Choir Seats, presumably daunted by the main hall prices).

It will be greatly interesting to hear how "natural" or not this all sounds on the radio.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* From The Guardian we learn that Aimard is touring playing & conducting Nos 4 & 5, but not scheduled to do so in London. Also, that he is directing the Aldeburgh Festival in June !