Beethoven's five piano concertos are probably the most popular works of the genre. Artists love to play them, audiences love to hear them, critics love to assess performances of them.
This past season I caught up with five artists in two of the most beloved of these five - the Fourth (G major, Op. 58), and the Fifth (E-flat major, Op. 73, ''Emperor''). Together these pianists offered an interesting overview of the state of piano-concerto performance styles these days.
Alfred Brendel is the quintessential thinker player. He brings a rigorous intellectual perspicacity to his work. At times this means that warmth and wit are lost in the struggle. One can never really know what to expect from him until he is actually in the thick of things. Such was the case with his account of the ''Emperor'' which closed the ''season'' of Beethoven concertos. He was performing the work as part of a complete concerto cycle with the Y Chamber Orchestra (specially expanded for the occasion), Gerard Schwarz, conductor. The evening was entirely his, for Mr. Schwarz was far more the solicitous accompanist than the equal protagonist in this majestic piano/orchestra dialogue.
Mr. Brendel takes an unusually operatic approach to this score (one that can be heard to fine effect in his recorded performance with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic - Philips 9500 243). From the opening cadenzalike volleys, there is a glittering brilliance in the playing, a very vocal style to the phrasing, an unusually ample shower of colors. The heroic passages are nobly projected, while the quieter moments of introspection manage to suggest great depths of emotion. And so it goes for Brendel, to the end of the concerto. Indeed, had he been performing with one of our illustrious senior conductors - say, an Eugen Jochum or a Rafael Kubelik - this could have been an astounding collaboration. As it was it was a highlight of the season.
Mr. Brendel's account of the Fourth with the Y Chamber proved to be a rather charmless affair until the second movement. Then he settled into some expert playing, with a keen ear to the intense nature of the dialogue between piano and orchestra. But even in the bubbly Rondo-Finale, Brendel's playing lacked the sparkle and the sheer beauty of tone heard in the ''Emperor.''
The pianist also offered the Second Concerto (so rarely heard in a concert hall) on the program with the ''Emperor.'' Here was Brendel at his most rigorous yet engaging. One sensed the entire piece had been meticulously worked out and that he was fussing and fidgeting with each detail to make it all fit properly within the overall interpretive framework. But it somehow avoided the feeling of a lecture at the keyboard and proved, finally, the ideal audience warmup for that remarkable ''Emperor'' that followed.
The Beethoven ''season'' had opened last September with Andre Watts's account of the ''Emperor,'' at the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Kubelik conducting. Mr. Watts is one of the grandest of personality players (meant in an utterly nonpejorative way). He has cultivated an appealing personal style that adapts to any and all music he may choose to play.
He strode out for this Friday matinee performance in gray striped pants and morning coat; the sartorial elegance was captured in the playing. His may not have been a particularly profound Beethoven, but it was exciting and deeply felt on its own terms. Watts's clarity of fingerwork, the depth and richness of tone he elicits from the Steinway, the specific aura he exudes, all speak of a unique presence in the music world today. Mr. Kubelik proved a splendid partner - solicitous when needed and very much a presence at all times.
Misha Dichter is also something of a personality player - the product of the competition circuit and the ensuing all-the-notes-perfectly-played artistic ethos. His Carnegie Hall ''Emperor'' this past March proved discouraging. David Zinman and the Rochester Philharmonic gave him all the support he could want, but somehow the pianist's fingers would not comply, and his concentration lapsed at several crucial points. One sensed a lack of commitment to the piece at hand and a deep-seated unease that permeated his reading.
Alexis Weissenberg has also traded on his personality, but it is not an endearing one. Indeed, there was a startling aura of arrogance that surrounded Weissenberg at his performance of Beethoven's Fourth last March. There was a time when the crystalline purity of his playing, the frightening evenness of his technique even in the densest of passages, created wonder, even awe. Interpretively, Weissenberg rarely communicated much. Nowadays, he projects even less in matters musicial.
At this New York Philharmonic performance in Avery Fisher Hall, one heard not only a vapid musical performance, but a technically blurred, untidy, uneven one as well. It was also clear that the pianist and the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, were not seeing eye to eye in this piece.