Annette Töpel

Beethoven: Early Piano Concertos

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Beethoven: Early Piano Concertos Review

by James Manheim

The tendency to view Beethoven's early works as harbingers of things to come is so strong that programs pairing his early mature pieces with student works remain relatively rare. It's worth remembering that the earliest commonly played works of Beethoven date from around 1795, by which time he was already 25. By the standards of the time, that made him a late bloomer. The work that straddles his first decade and a half of activity is the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19, which was begun around 1790 but not published until after the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15. North German First Vienna School specialist Annette Töpel opens with a straightforward reading of the concerto that offers nothing not available elsewhere, but the continuation of the program is something else again. The depth of the general unfamiliarity with the student Beethoven is shown by the fact that Töpel here offers what is claimed to be the first recording of the Piano Concerto in E flat major, WoO 4, which she dubs Das Nullte or the Piano Concerto No. 0, in the version that has come down to the present day. This version, made by Beethoven himself, is for piano solo; the original orchestral parts were lost, but the work is still usually heard, when it is heard at all, in a reconstructed version made by a Swiss conductor in the 1940s. It's well worth hearing for anyone fascinated by creative personalities and their growth. The piece, especially the big first movement, is an unwieldy thing with simple themes but huge harmonic gestures; it sounds nothing like the music with which Beethoven would have grown up, and it shows Beethoven as a daring rebel at age 15. Also intriguing is the Konzertrondo for piano and orchestra in B flat major, WoO 6, which was the original finale of the second concerto until Beethoven replaced it with the syncopated number known today. It's clearly inferior to the later version, and hearing it helps the listener understand something of the creative strides the young Beethoven took. Töpel's performances tend toward the conservative side, but staying out of the music's way is desirable in this kind of program. This is worth a space on a well-stocked Beethoven shelf.

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