Korstick’s Superb Beethoven Concerti

Beethoven Korstick cover

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5. Piano Concerto in D, Op. 61a (listed here as Concerto No. 7). Piano Concerto No. 0 in Eb, WoO4. Rondo in Bb, WoO 6. Piano Concerto No. 6: I. Allegro / Michael Korstick, pno; ORF Radio Symphony Orch. Vienna; Constantin Trinks, cond / CPO 555 447-2

While the rest of the world was Pandemic-ing at the end of 2020, pianist Michael Korstick was a busy beaver. Working in a Viennese recording studio with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Constantin Trinks, his own personal choice as conductor, he recorded the five numbered piano concerti of Beethoven as well as the piano version of the Violin Concerto. He wanted the concerti to be played and conducted his way, which he felt was truest to Beethoven: brisk and taut, with the energy of Toscanini’s performances, a little more breathing room but without the rallentandos and luftpausen that so many performers insert into them despite the fact that they’re not in the scores.

And now, we have the final result. I’m sure that he, who is well aware of historical Beethoven recordings, knows that his set will be measured against all the others. I can’t claim to have heard all of them because many such sets didn’t appeal to me, but between following my own tastes and, occasionally the recommendations of others (particularly in my younger years, before I was confident enough to follow my own muse), I’ve listened to these:

Artur Schnabel/Malcolm Sargent – in brief, Schnabel excellent, Sargent businesslike
Wilhelm Kempff/Ferdinand Leitner – slow, Kempff mannered, Leitner dull as dishwater
Rudolf Serkin/Eugene Ormandy – actually an excellent set despite a few rallentandos, but you’ve GOT to stick to Ormandy and NOT fill in with Serkin/Bernstein
Leon Fleischer/George Szell – 1 & 2 oddly slow & stiff, 3-5 generally excellent
Friedrich Gulda/Horst Stein – surprisingly two-dimensional for the usually fiery Gulda
Alfred Brendel/James Levine – #1 was an ass-kicker, the other 4 not that great
Richard Goode/Iván Fischer – the opposite of the first set: Fischer exciting, Goode businesslike
Stefan Vladar/Barry Wordsworth – not too bad but not great, either
Stewart Goodyear/Andrew Constantine – both sound businesslike but solid
Dénes Várjon/András Keller – a real set of risk-taking performances; despite Várjon’s occasional rushing the notes, causing some smudges, this is really incendiary Beethoven

And of course I have the incomplete NBC Symphony set, No. 2 by Kapell/Golschmann (another recording that Korstick greatly admires), Nos. 1, 3 & 4 by Toscanini with three different pianists (Dorfmann, Rubinstein and Serkin).

Listening to Korstick makes you realize two things: he really is an artist, and he really does understand Beethoven. Generally speaking, he walks a tightrope between the no-holds-barred style of Várjon and the more orthodox but still fine playing (for its day) of Serkin, and as it happens these were my two favorite recordings of these concerti.

Until now.

Although I still find that Ormandy’s conducting is a shade more exciting than Trinks’, at least a couple of these recordings were made in live performance and that always makes a big difference. Perhaps wanting to avoid Schnabel’s occasional over-accenting of certain notes, Korstick tried to be truer to the score, at least enough to produce musically consonant performances. Put another way, he plays each and every note with its full musical value whereas other pianists (Schnabel and Várjon, and in places Serkin) would clip some notes just a hair short in order to create more “springiness” in their playing.

But this is not to say that Korstick is orthodox in his phrasing. On the contrary, there are innumerable little moments of rubato here that I wish Stewart Goodyear had done to make his playing sound less routine. Like his superb set of the Beethoven piano sonatas, Korstick gives us some fire in every piece here without resorting to exaggeration. Yes, perhaps these performances would have gained a shade more frisson had they been “live,” but when you compare them to every other studio-only set, Várjon/Keller is the only one I can put on the same level for different reasons, and as I already mentioned, Várjon sometimes let the excitement of the moment override his accuracy.

A comment made by Korstick to Dr. Christoh Vratz in 2012, in the liner notes for his Beethoven Piano Sonatas set, explains his philosophy:

Things are different in a concert. There, I do not want to deliver exactly the same thing one hundred percent, of course, or I would just send the CD onto the podium. In a concert, spontaneous inspirations and insights in the detail can lead to different results…With a studio recording, much less is due to chance or the given moment. That is why I listen very attentively to what I have just recorded, in order to be sure that each note is shaped as I imagine it. It sounds paradoxical when I say that I love studio productions because I can risk much more there. But that’s how it is. If I get on the wrong track, there’s a second chance right away in the studio.

Moreover, Korstick’s piano is beautifully recorded, which occasionally brings out more detail that I’ve ever heard in anyone’s performances of these pieces. Listen, for instance, to the slow movement of the Concerto No. 1, where his bass line fairly bounces against the right hand, producing a rhythmic tension that no one else I’ve heard has ever achieved, at least on record. And then, at 10:03 when the orchestra stops and he plays that high-lying phrase in the right hand, the notes almost make you feel tension, as if you didn’t really know where the music was going until he releases it and moves on to the final passages. And the way he digs into the opening of the last movement will have you on the edge of your seat.

Perhaps because they respect each other so much, Trinks is with Korstick every step of the way; his conducting never disappoints, although my ears tell me that the pianist led the conductor and not the other way round—which is undoubtedly what happened when Beethoven played these concerti himself (sometimes he acted as his own conductor from the keyboard). And there is more yet, the way Korstick “rounds off” certain phrases, as if creating musical cells within a movement that are meant to stand out without sounding forced or artificial. In his own way, then, his interpretations of these concerti are as revolutionary as Várjon’s, just more carefully articulated. I suppose a combination of excitement and neatness says it best. He wants you to experience the drama in the music, but he’s not going to slop over a few notes in order to do it.

Strange as it may seem to you, for me the acid test of any complete Beethoven Concerto set is not the first, or the third, or the fifth concerto, but the second—not because it’s the best but because it’s weaker than the first. Beethoven knew it, which is why he published it as No. 2 even though it was written earlier than No. 1. To bring this concerto to life requires the utmost from both conductor and soloist, and fortunately both Trinks and Korstick were up to the challenge. Only Kapell-Golschmann and, in their own idiosyncratic way, Várjon-Keller compare to what this duo does here, largely due not to the excitement that Korstick generates but to those small, subtle moments when he pulls back just a bit to shape a certain note or phrase in a way that no one else has done.

As I consider the second concerto to be the hardest to pull off in the series, I think of the third as Beethoven’s most pivotal. Indeed, the step up from the first (actually second) concerto to the third was just a big as his step up from the second to his third symphony (and perhaps I am alone in the world for thinking that the last movement of the “Eroica” Symphony was a cop-out that doesn’t really fit with the other three movements…but it doesn’t really; it’s a nice, bracing theme-and-variations when in fact this symphony called for the orchestral parallel to the last movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata). The only moment in this performance of the third concerto that I thought was just a shade wrong was the slow-down that Trinks took at the end of the exposition, just before the pianist’s entrance. It just sounds a little too much like “Ta-daaa! Here comes the pianist!” whereas a more clipped, in-tempo playing of those notes would actually have been a bit more dramatic. On the other hand, it’s in keeping with the slight weight (rubato touches) that Korstick brings to bear on the solo part. He also manages to make the rippling figures in the first-movement cadenza sound as if they were related to the solo part in the “Emperor” Concerto, something I never quite noticed before.

In the second movement, Korstick and Trinks depart quite a bit from the pace taken by Artur Rubinstein and Arturo Toscanini, adding nearly a full minute. Yet somehow, the two performances don’t really sound too radically different when played one after the other because Toscanini relaxed the tension and Trinks keeps the rhythm moving forward despite the slower pace. In the third movement, both Toscanini and Trinks take almost identical tempi, and Korstick plays his part with a wonderful “lift” in the rhythm…there’s almost a touch of Chico Marx’s sparkle in a few passages.

Moving on to the Fourth Concerto, we hear Korstick doing something that almost no one ever does, and that is to play the first movement in fairly strict time with none of those Romantic but unwritten rallentandos that pianists love to throw in to show how “sensitive” they are. (I quickly tired of such pianists early in my exposure to classical music; my line always was, “Watery-eyed ascetics do not impress me.”) This decision was a wise one; not only does it follow what Beethoven wrote, but it brings out the work’s structure better—and Korstick plays certain passages with such a nice lift and forward momentum that the listener is never bored by the musical progression. The remaining two movements go very well, too. This has always been a Beethoven concerto that I’ve liked but not loved; too much of the music seems to ride on the surface, with not much to recommend it other than a nice entertaining 35 minutes or so, but Korstick’s interpretation made me re-think this piece.

The “Emperor” Concerto sound as grand as it should, but this is the one Beethoven piano concerto that always seems to bring out the best in both pianists and conductors anyway. And well it should; the music is so good that it almost, but not quite, plays itself if conductor and soloist just follow the dots (notes) and put into it what Beethoven directed. This, then, was in a sense the least surprising performance for me, but at least there was no let-down as there was in the Brendel-Levine set.

Rather than fill out the third disc with the Choral Fantasy, a piece that I think I love more than most people do, Korstick chose to play the piano version of the Violin Concerto, based on the fact that the composer himself made the transcription, although circumstantial evidence suggests that he did so in part because the premiere of the violin version was one of his few bombs. Korstick and Trinks again do not let the music linger; they take it at the written tempo, as only a few violin-version recordings do (among them Heifetz-Toscanini, Milstein-Steinberg, Heifetz-Munch and Tetzlaff-Ticciati). I’ve only heard a few recordings of this edition of the concerto—Pietro Spada with Sir Alexander Gibson, Jenő Jandó with Bela Drahos and Gottlieb Wallisch with Martin Haselböck—and somehow the music fails to make much of an impression. In the case of the first two it’s because the tempi are still a tad sluggish and the pianists really don’t sound firmly committed to the score; as for the third, the tempi are wonderfully brisk but the orchestra plays with that non-historical constant straight tone in the strings and the soloist, I swear, sounds like he’s playing a xylophone instead of a piano.

Trinks and Korstick do not make the same mistakes. In fact, the conducting here is not only brisker than that of Haselböck, but also has the kind of muscle one heard in Toscanini’s recording of the violin version. His only fault is that he does not have the lower strings articulate their figures as clearly as Toscanini, Steinberg or Munch were able to do, but that isn’t such a big thing. The real gem is Korstick’s firmly committed performance; he sounds as if he’s playing the second concerto, meaning that he gives it his all, and the results are stunning. Listen to those chords at the 4:28 mark—he attacks them for all they’re worth, and it isn’t just that specific moment in the performance. The whole thing bristles with excitement. There are moments when the “spring” in his rhythmic attack makes the piano sound like a young lamb joyously leaping over a fence. I’ve never heard the like, and strange as this may seem to you, this may actually be the defining moment in the entire set and the principal reason you should buy it. As I say, it’s not just Korstick who makes this performance work. Trinks drives it as if it were the “Eroica” Symphony, and that’s saying something. But what can I say? Kortick’s first-movement cadenza will absolutely blow you away; it’s that exciting and that interesting. He plays it flawlessly, and there’s a part for the tympani behind him in the second half that will perk your ears up if nothing else will.

In the second movement, Korstick’s pearl-like attack makes the slowly spaced notes sound like diamonds dropping slowly onto fine china. No violinist has, or probably could, make such an effect since their instrument is entirely different. Also, the way Korstick leads in from the second movement to the third is different from the violin version, and also more exciting.

But there’s more! On the fourth CD are Korstick’s performances of the oft-ignored “Piano Concerto No. 0” written by the 13-year-old Beethoven in 1784, before his 14th birthday, the Rondo in Bb which was the original finale of Piano Concerto No. 2, and the single surviving movement (the first) from the Piano Concerto No. 6. The latter may confuse some people since the piano version of the Violin Concerto is sometimes referred to, and listed on CD covers, as “Piano Concerto No. 6,” but they are entirely different works.

I already owned a recording of the “Concerto No. 0” in Naxos’ Big Box o’ Beethoven that came out last year, played by Martin Galling with the Berlin Symphony conducted by Carl-August Bünte. This one is entirely different, with a new orchestration commissioned especially for this recording, but there are other differences as well. The tempi are faster, and Korstick plays the piano part as if this were a significant concerto, investing the music with his usual blend of passion, legato, rubato and a bit of dazzle in the first-movement cadenza. He almost convinces one that it’s a wonderful piece, but it falls short of being great though it shows that, at age 14, Beethoven had certainly learned the rudiments of composition as they were known in his time. The second and third movements in particular reveal its weakness: they sound like sub-par Mozart (or C.P.E. Bach, whose music he knew fairly well at the time), very pretty but rather inconsequential music, yet Korstick is still in their pitching, trying to make you think that it’s on a par with the other concerti. Trinks gives it all he has as well.

Even in the Bb Rondo, written in 1793, we hear a distinct improvement in Beethoven’s approach to composition. There are several moments here, as in the sudden rising up of the orchestral music as if exploding up a mine shaft, that has Beethoven’s fingerprints all over it. Yet it is the one surviving movement from the Piano Concerto No. 6 that most grabs your attention, for this is fully mature Beethoven with no apologies necessary. Yes, I felt that the very opening, with its soft orchestra theme, followed by the pianist playing keyboard flourishes, is somewhat weak, but once the orchestral tutti arrives to carry us off, we’re in mid-period Beethoven at his best. One thing that struck me as quite different for him was his use of falling chromatics and other bold, immediate key changes in the middle of phrases, something that just wasn’t done in his time and in fact that he wouldn’t revisit until the late String Quartets, but here it is in this fully developed piece written in 1814-15. The only reason I can think for his having abandoned it, other than the dramatic key changes, is that the movement bears a bit of resemblance to the opening movement of the “Emperor,” but I really do feel that this piece should be in the standard repertoire like Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. This movement was completed (Beethoven only left 256 bars) a few years ago by Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant; it was recorded previously by Sophie Mayuko-Vetter with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Ruzicka (Oehms Classics), but both Trinks’ conducting and Korstick’s full-blooded, emotionally committed playing are far better than her version. Once again, Korstick provides an amazing rhythmic “lift” to certain phrases that will put a smile on your face; he just knows where to go and what to do with the music.

So that’s my assessment of this set. There are performances that will meet your highest expectations,  those to make you re-think the music and those that exceed expectations. The piano version of the violin concerto, however, succeeds on all three counts. Trinks and Korstick seldom put a foot wrong in this entire set. From start to finish, it’s a gem.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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