With the arrival of this album in early January 2021, echoes of the Beethoven year are still resounding. Yet even though the composer’s piano concertos and sonatas were well tended to in new recordings throughout the 2020 anniversary, performances of the Piano Concerto No. 3 and the “Appassionata” Sonata as fine as these by Phillip Kawin are always cause for celebration, no matter when they arrive.
Such a giant is Beethoven in music history—towering above all others as a figure of sheer, indomitable will—and such a powerful influence as he exerted on the culture at large, that even the least of his scribbles have been treated as documents rivaling the Magna Carta in importance, which, surely, they’re not. Thus, it comes as no surprise that even one of Beethoven’s least significant insignificances, his Variations on “God Save the King,” consigned by the catalogers to the composer’s “without opus” number appendix, has racked up at least two dozen recordings.
The piece is one of a pair of variations twins, its sibling being “Rule Britannia,” WoO 79. Both were sent by Beethoven to George Thomson, a publisher in Edinburgh with whom Beethoven had previously done business. In a letter to Thomson, Beethoven wrote, “I send you herewith some variations on two English themes that are very easy and which, as I hope, will have good success.” The theme on which Beethoven based his “God Save the King” Variations is, of course, that of the British national anthem, today known as “God Save the Queen,” and familiar to American audiences as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
Beethoven tossed off the piece in 1803, the year that saw composition of the “Eroica” Symphony. We know from the gestation of the symphony and from Beethoven’s conversations and diaries of the time what he thought of Napoleon declaring himself emperor. It would take 10 years, but in 1813, Beethoven finally had his revenge, when he reused the “God Save the King” theme in Wellington’s Victory (aka the Battle Symphony), a clamorous piece to celebrate the British defeat of the French army at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain, and to give Napoleon a one-finger salute for what would turn out to be the beginning of the end of his reign.
The oft-cited model for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is Mozart’s 24th. Both share the same key, C Minor; both derive their thematic material from a similarly constructed triadic formula; and both are intensely dramatic. Beethoven being Beethoven, of course, takes matters a step further with a first movement of a pulse-quickening adrenaline rush. The tension is heightened not just by the triadic motive that makes itself heard and felt as a constant menacing presence in practically every bar. It’s also raised by the feeling of an inevitable, unstoppable march towards an existential catastrophe, which is met in the coda after the cadenza.
Kawin’s performance of the concerto possesses a dramatic thrust and packs the kind of powerful punch that I find thoroughly convincing and compelling, as the pianist drives the drama forward. Meanwhile, Gerard Schwarz and his Russian National Orchestra players offer exceptionally incisive rhythmic articulation and a sense of urgency as they respond to and interact with Kawin’s dynamic delivery of the solo part. Recordings of Beethoven’s Third Concerto are almost as numerous as Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions of stars,” but Kawin’s shines among them as one of the brighter ones in the firmament.
Special too is Kawin’s performance of the “Appassionata” Sonata. With subtle ritards and dynamic shading, he evokes a sense of mystery in the opening bars that makes the explosive rocket launch after the fermata in the 16th full bar all the more of a shock. The slow variations movement is beautifully done. To the extent possible that the piano can sing in a sweet, sustained legato, Kawin makes it do so.
Tempo-wise, Kawin’s finale is not the fastest on record—clearly not the suicide mission undertaken by Fazil Say—but at a saner pace, Kawin is able to bring out the many motivic details that lie hidden in the forest of notes and the grand sweep of the thing. But don’t underestimate Kawin’s technique. His coda will leave you gaping and gasping.
In case anyone is confused by the above headnote, this is a two-disc set in which Disc 1 is a standard audio CD, containing the concerto, and variations, and the sonata. Disc 2 is a standard audio/video DVD, containing just the concerto. The videography is very well done, zooming in on cue to the instruments in the orchestra that are actually playing, and keeping the main focus on Kawin and his hands on the keyboard.
All around, this is a superb addition to the Beethoven discography. Very strongly recommended.