Maria João Pires / Daniel Harding

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 3 & 4

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This release on the Onyx Classics label has no right to be as good as it is. Pianist Maria-João Pires, 70 years old when the album appeared in 2014, has never been known as a Beethoven specialist. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding is a competent group, surely, but hardly on Europe's or even Scandinavia's A-list. The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, and Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, hardly lack for varied and incisive interpretations. Yet there it is: this one delivers ideas that nobody else has offered before. In a nutshell, Pires makes the piano the quiet partner to a rather martial orchestra in these works. The Third Concerto loses its epic quality and has Pires offering gentle answers to the orchestra's turbulent phrases, with a slow movement that brings to mind Pires' true specialty: Chopin. The tempos are generally deliberate, and the long opening movement of the Piano Concerto No. 3 gives the feeling that every note fits into a larger structure. The overall effect is wondrously lyrical, yet very well controlled on the part of both soloist and conductor, who seem really to have worked these performances out together. Those who really do not like low-key Beethoven might think twice about this, but even so might find it extraordinary.

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