Fanfare Magazine

Phillip Kawin, Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra

A new video release on the Master Performers label features a rendition of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, recorded in January of 2018 at Moscow’s Rachmaninov Concert Hall. Although the performers are on stage and in concert attire, there is no visual or audio evidence of an audience in attendance. The pianist is the American concert artist and educator, Phillip Kawin, whose previous audio recordings on the Master Performers label of solo repertoire have earned enthusiastic praise from my Fanfare colleagues. Here, Phillip Kawin, joined by the Russian National Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz, offers a worthy and intriguing account of one of the cornerstones of the piano concerto repertoire. By the time Beethoven appeared as soloist in the Vienna April 5, 1803 world premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3, he had established himself as a brilliant virtuoso of the highest order, albeit an iconoclastic one. Beethoven’s vigorous attacks upon the keyboard stretched the limits of the delicate fortepianos of the time to their limits, and beyond. Anton Reicha recalled serving as a page turner for Beethoven in the latter’s performance of a Mozart Piano Concerto. According to Reicha, he worked “harder than Beethoven” during the performance, constantly repairing the fortepiano strings that Beethoven snapped. I mention this aspect of Beethoven’s approach to the keyboard because the Third Piano Concerto, more than its two predecessors, offers the soloist an opportunity to evoke Beethoven’s athletic and, for its time, stunning approach to keyboard performance. This is particularly true in the work’s opening movement, set in the stormy key of C minor, and filled with forceful, dramatic passages for the soloist.

Kawin opts for a different approach, one that evokes first-hand accounts not of Beethoven, but his predecessor Mozart. We know that Mozart, hardly the most self-effacing musician (and for good reason!), prided himself on many aspects of his keyboard artistry. These included a pristine technique that handled even the most challenging passages with ease and precision, a beautiful singing tone, and legato that at its best (according to Mozart) “flowed like oil.” Mozart also disdained pianists who were overly demonstrative in displays of their emotions: “I do not make grimaces, and yet play with such expression….” All of these considerable attributes may be found in Kawin’s performance of the Beethoven Third. Rather than a heaven-storming interpretation, Kawin opts for an approach of elegance, refinement, and beauty. Yes, the performance is more an homage to Beethoven’s predecessors than a harbinger of the stormy Romantic era, but it is none the less effective for that. In Kawin’s hands, the lyrical beauty of the second movement Adagio glows, and the tripping humor of the close of the Rondo finale shines. Kawin’s Classical approach to the Beethoven Third is complemented by the Russian National Orchestra’s reduced string complement (8-8-8-3-3, as best I can tell), with first and second violins placed left and right at the front of the ensemble. Gerard Schwarz leads a performance that has momentum, precision, and a lovely orchestral sonority. Kawin plays Beethoven’s cadenza in the opening movement.

The set contains two discs, DVD and Blu-ray. The latter has the expected enhanced video acuity, with the sound being first-rate in both versions. As best I can tell, the individual movements, while identified on the screen, are not independently accessible. The camera work offers a lively and engaging perspective of the performers, without ever calling undue attention to itself. If you are seeking an interpretation of the Beethoven Third that anticipates such stormy C minor works as the Fifth Symphony and Coriolan Overture, you will need to look elsewhere. But the genius of Beethoven allows many different, and viable approaches, including Phillip Kawin’s expert and lovely rendition. Recommended.

Ken Meltzer

Copyright © 2020 by Fanfare Inc.

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