Conductor, pianist and peace advocate Daniel Barenboim first recorded all five of Beethoven's piano concertos in 1967. Barenboim, a brash and fantastically smart 24-year-old, was paired with an elder statesman, conductor Otto Klemperer. There was real magic in that collaboration, yielding recordings that still set a benchmark.
Now, more than 40 years on, Barenboim's mature presence and authority cast a very different, and far more intimate, spell. Serving as both pianist and conductor, Barenboim delivers a double whammy — phrasing and weight are gauged exactly to his specifications. The Staatskapelle Berlin (the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera) is a chamber-sized ensemble of just about 30 musicians, but there's nothing small or precious about these performances.
Barenboim takes a sculpted, muscular approach to the concertos, and the moments he creates are quite poignant. Take, for example, the poignant narrative he and his musicians create in the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto. The orchestra bears down in full, fierce darkness on the piano's still, small light — and the last moments are utterly heartbreaking.
As befits Beethoven, it's not all darkness, though. Graciousness and joy flood the uptempo movements, as in the concluding Rondo of the Concerto No. 1. In a more driving performance, it's easy for the soloist to lose track of the main theme's good humor and lightness, but Barenboim brings out its good humor:
The sound is very, very present — you'll feel like you're sitting right amidst the orchestra players — but quite dry. If you like to hear all the small details of a performance rather than a fuzzy, warm wash of sound, this engineering will please you.
This set is part of Barenboim's much larger "Beethoven for All" project — which includes recordings of all nine symphonies with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the complete piano sonatas. But these recordings of the piano concertos, made live at the 2007 Ruhr Piano Festival in Germany, are not quite a new release; they were apparently released on DVD back in 2007 on EuroArts.