This set of three CDs contains performances of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (plus the Choral Fantasy) played by the great Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. All these lauded performances have been available on single discs for several years and can still be bought singly here at Amazon. Please see prior reviews of the single discs here: Anton Kuerti plays Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emporer"; Choral Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra Op. 80; King Stephen Overture Op. 117, Anton Kuerti Plays Beethoven, Vol. 2 and Anton Kuerti plays Beethoven, Vol. 3. (This set's disc containing the Emperor Concerto and the Choral Fantasy does not, as in the singly-issued disc, have a performance of the King Stephen Overture, presumably because that work does not feature piano with orchestra.) In the interest of full disclosure let me say that I am among that group who feel that Kuerti is one of the truly great pianists currently before the public. He was born in Vienna, grew up in the US, made his debut with the Boston Pops at the age of 11, studied in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia and eventually moved to Canada in the 1960s. He studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Arthur Loesser. He has specialized in the works of Beethoven, although he has also recorded much Brahms, Schumann and Schubert. I have never heard a recording of his that I didn't think was outstanding.
I will not go into great detail about each of the works presented here, but will confine myself to a few comments about highlights of these recordings. For me, one of the great concerto movements by Beethoven is the Largo of PC No. 3. In this performance both Kuerti and the Torontonians play with almost unbelievable delicacy and expressivity. One holds one's breath with the beauty of it all. And then when the movement is over Kuerti seems as if he is slowly waking from a dream and the first few notes of the following Molto Allegro seem almost reluctant, as if Kuerti can hardly bear to move on to faster music. A magical moment.
In the middle movement of No. 4 the struggle between the piano and the orchestra -- characterized by Adolph Marx as 'Orpheus taming the Furies' -- is as effective as I've ever heard it. The descending melody towards its end, as played by Kuerti, is hypnotic in its serenity; the chain of trills near the movement's end are coruscating and the movement concludes with 'the peace of mankind's hopes'. Kuerti plays the concerto's finale with a joyful insouciance.
Little needs to be said about the effectiveness of the 'Emperor' Concerto, and one wonders what Kuerti could bring to it that hadn't been done before. Aside from his impeccable technique and singing line, there are the subtle dynamic and rhythmic nuances that make this performance anything but routine. The crowd-pleasing bombast is there, but so is the delicacy and songfulness. The Toronto orchestra outdo themselves. I can't imagine their lovely introduction to the middle movement being done any better. Kuerti's handling of the subtle and yet, for its time, shockingly bold transition from that movement to the finale -- a simple, but harmonically unprepared, descent from B to B flat -- is done with such musing spontaneity that it sounds fresh and new, as if Kuerti were making it up on the spot.
The 'Choral Fantasy' has always been treated as one of Beethoven's ugly stepchildren and I never cared much for it until I heard Rudolf Serkin play it. Clearly Kuerti studied the work with Serkin (or, like me, wore out Serkin's LP from repeated playing) because he makes as much as can be made of this awkward work. Kuerti and Davis make the most of the piece's traversal from dark to light, from solo piano, to orchestra, to joyful chorus; the performance ends with a brilliant and noble peroration.
Space does not allow me to comment about Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, but they are of a piece with the other three concertos, outstanding in every way. The recorded sound is limpid and true.
Urgently recommended, even to those who own other complete sets of the Beethoven concertos. You must hear these performances!