Classical Music

Piano Forte

Playing Beethoven on original instruments.

Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E Flat Major, “Emperor” Op. 73. Robert Levin, fortepiano; Monteverdi Choir and OrchestreRévolutionnaireetRomantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

The opening two bars tell us a lot about this recording: First, a superbly voiced E-flat major chord with every instrument audible, the winds biting through the string sound, the timpani crisp yet viscerally forceful. Then, the soloist begins his famous heroic surge up the keyboard. Except that he doesn’t sound heroic; he sounds tinkly. His finger work is impeccable, his phrasing elegant, his stance as swaggering as one could wish, but the sound of his instrument–a fortepiano, an earlier, less powerful version of our modern-day piano–is irreconcilably at odds with his intentions.

The original instrument movement is several decades old, and has moved so far beyond mere novelty that in some repertoires, it might even be considered the new orthodoxy. Bach performance in the style of those old Grand Teutons–conductors like Furtwängler, Klemperer, and von Karajan–has fallen out of fashion and favor, and massed Victorian armies raising the rafters as they belt out TheMessiah now seem quaintly anachronistic.

In music of the 19th century, though, the use of original instruments is still controversial. Do they reveal the composer’s intentions, or merely demonstrate the practical limitations against which he struggled? Keyboard music poses the question in its starkest terms: Was the 19th-century concert grand developed in response to the music being composed by Beethoven and his contemporaries, in order to realize its potential more fully, or was the Romantic style of keyboard writing itself a response to the sound of these new instruments?

These aren’t idle questions. When Beethoven was sent a Broadwood grand as a gift from its British manufacturer in 1818 (he maneuvered to avoid paying import duties, incidentally), he was delighted–with both the gift and the instrument. It’s not unreasonable to assume that he considered it a superior medium for the performance of his music, even music composed before he received the gift.

Robert Levin, the fortepiano soloist on this recording and a respected musical scholar, assumes otherwise. As he makes his way through the cycle of Beethoven concertos, he plans to use different instruments for the different pieces, determining the compass of each instrument he employs by the range of notes each piece demands. He believes, as he put it in a conversation with me recently, that “no matter the size of the room, Beethoven always insists on banging his head on the ceiling and stubbing his toe on the floor.” This is elegantly put and close to inarguable: If Beethoven had a five-and-a-half octave instrument at his disposal, the music he wrote for it probably would demand the highest and the lowest notes of that five-and-a-half octave span. But does it necessarily follow that the instrument available to him on any given occasion produced the ideal sound he heard in his head?

This question is more pointed for the “Emperor” concerto than it might be for its predecessors. Although not the first grandly heroic piano concerto–Mozart’s K. 503 arguably merits that description–the “Emperor” proclaimed its grandeur in an especially aggressive way, and in so doing, became the model for concertos of the Romantic era. The drama inherent in concerto performance–valiant soloist vying with and defying the mass of the orchestra with his eloquence and virtuosity–is the very essence of the “Emperor.” One would think it requires an instrument that can challenge the orchestra in volume and power. To play the piece on a fortepiano seems almost perverse.

That said, it must also be said that no other performance could have offered a better opportunity to decide whether Levin is right. Gardiner’s conducting is so good (his Beethoven Symphony cycle is, to my ears, the one to own, and his Mozart and Handel performances are exemplary); Levin’s playing is so dexterous, intelligent, and ardent; and the recording is so technically splendid (there are felicities of scoring, such as a solo cello line in the first movement I’d never noticed before) that, whatever its peculiarities, this release at least qualifies as best of breed.

And how does it fare? In the lyrical sections, it works superbly (most of the second movement, say, and the beautiful B minor/C flat major section of the first movement’s second subject, projected with supple delicacy by Levin). In the filigree figures accompanying transitional passages in the first movement, or the dialogue with the French horns near the end of the same movement, it’s close to a revelation. This, I found myself thinking, must be the precise blend Beethoven intended.

But in the heroic passages that define the work, it doesn’t succeed for me at all. The cadenza that opens the concerto sounds wan and unassertive; its even more extravagant recapitulation tries harder while achieving less. The great four-against-three contrary-motion chromatic scales, one of the most thrilling virtuoso passages in the literature, are bland in spite of Levin’s awesome execution. And in the battle of block chords toward the end of the development section, the piano comes off as strident rather than imperial as it attempts to rival the orchestra.

This performance contains one other oddity worth noting. Levin accompanies the orchestra, continuo-style, during the tutti sections–passages when the soloist is normally silent. This is a controversial practice even in Mozart concertos, and unheard of in 19th-century works. In his liner notes, and more elaborately in our conversation, Levin claims the manuscript score makes Beethoven’s intentions unambiguous on this point. His argument is persuasive, but the conclusion is so counterintuitive–why should the soloist meekly accompany the orchestra when he isn’t defying it?–that I remain unconvinced. His contributions in these passages are largely unobtrusive–and in a medium without a visual component, not especially bothersome–but the choice nevertheless seems eccentric.

The other piece on the recording, the Fantasy for Pianoforte, Chorus, and Orchestrain C Minor Op. 80, a hastily written occasional composition with amusing premonitions of Symphony No. 9, is not one of Beethoven’s more inspired creations. But the performance is splendid; Levin and Gardiner are powerful advocates for a work whose position in the repertory has historically been tenuous.

It’s impossible to arrive at any general conclusions about what sorts of instruments are right for Beethoven’s keyboard music. It’s true that different pieces benefit from different treatment; the Op. 2 sonatas, for example, don’t need a sound source identical to the Hammerklavier. And the coming original-instrument performances of the remaining concertos from Levin and Gardiner promise to be revelatory. But–and Levin is likely to find this praise more infuriating than any criticism–had he chosen to play his “Emperor” on a Steinway or a Bosendorfer, he might have given us one of the greatest recordings of the piece ever put on disc.