There is something to be said for an orchestra playing something for the first time. And one doesn't get to experience that phenomenon very often. Professional orchestras across the world can play the standard repertoire in their sleep. And too often their playing sounds like it. It's rare to find a recording which springs to life with the freshness and spontaneity of new discovery. Which brings me to the present recording - Beethoven played by a community ballet orchestra led from the keyboard by an excellent pianist.
First a disclaimer - I received this disc gratis from the public relations firm representing pianist Eugene Albulescu, in consideration for a possible review.
This CD appears on a label unfamiliar to me - AMP Recordings. And the pianist, Eugene Albulescu, is also an unfamiliar name. As to the orchestra...well, my eyebrows raised when seeing it named as "Orchestra of Friends". Reading the excellent booklet, I find the "Orchestra of Friends" is actually the orchestra which serves the Ballet Guild of Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's production of Nutcracker (and others). It is a chamber orchestra, with a reduced compliment of strings, and our pianist is their conductor. For these Beethoven concertos, he leads them from the keyboard.
Right from the opening tutti, this ensemble does tend to sound a little bit like an accomplished community orchestra. But the only real issue of note is a lack of real power in tuttis/forte passages. But then - something begins to happen. I hear an unmistakable enthusiasm in their playing; a sense of irrepressible joy which is so often missing from recordings of these over-familiar warhorses. I found myself drawn into the music in such a way that any lack of refinement in the playing itself was soon forgotten. And when the pianist enters, I was hooked. Although, I was hesitant at first. In the very first few bars, Mr. Albulescu exhibited a touch of mannerism. And I am not always convinced by his touches of extraneous ornamentation here and there in the 3rd movement. But, happily, I hear it only occasionally, and he quickly gets down to the business of simply playing Beethoven. And play Beethoven he does! This is some seriously good piano playing.
All through, I found the playing of all involved to be more than accomplished. The precision of articulation was impressive. And I especially enjoyed the lovely tone of the first flute and bassoon players. I was bothered occasionally, however, by the oboe tone, which does not blend with the other woodwinds.
As to performances, I have only one real reservation: the opening allegro con brio of the 1st. It is a bit sluggish. I kept wishing it would move along with a quicker tempo and a little more brio. But the 3rd movement Rondo compensates - it takes off like a wildfire and crackles with energy to the very end! This orchestra is definitely up to the challenge. Their unanimity of ensemble and precision of articulation are impressive. And the piano playing all through is characterful, crisp and extremely accomplished.
Moving on to the 5th, the opening movement is taken at a true allegro, and bursts forth with joy and exuberance. Only during the opening violin statement does the reduced number of violins reveal itself as detrimental, which sounds undernourished. However, that is quickly forgotten as the sweep of the music-making carries one along at a cracking tempo. Similarly, the final Rondo is very well done. Both slow movements are free-flowing at well-chosen tempos, never dragging, but singing sweetly with a natural expression.
The recorded sound is very good, although not entirely complimentary. The up-close perspective and slightly dry acoustic provide dramatic presence and detailed articulation, but leave any slight imperfections in the playing nowhere to hide. A little more richness would have benefitted this string section. But once the ear adjusts, the immediacy and sheer energy of the music-making are most satisfactory.
The production is first class, with a beautiful, substantive booklet, complete with pictures and plenty of details regarding the music and performers.
Summing up, the competition in these concertos is dauntingly fierce. And indeed, I listened to this disc immediately after the marvelous complete set from Bavouzet on Chandos. The magnificence of those recordings puts subsequent recording at a distinct and unfair disadvantage. However, any reservations I might have had going into this were quickly forgotten and the music-making proved the old adage to be absolutely true: "Don't judge a book by its cover". Mr. Albulescu is a real talent. His piano playing is fabulous, and his leadership of this chamber orchestra is assured. The life and joy he brings to these concertos is refreshing.