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Beethoven Piano concertos 1–5

Garrick Ohlsson
Album Review: Beethoven Piano concertos 1–5; Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra
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Anyone in 2024 seeking to buy a set of the five Beethoven piano concertos is literally spoilt for choice. These recordings – made during a series of live performances during the Grand Teton Music Festival in July 2022 – feature veteran pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Born April 3rd 1948, Ohlsson was 74 when he made these recordings. He won the prestigious Chopin International Piano competition back in 1970 – the first and only American pianist ever to have done so. 

Ohlsson’s performances – as captured at the Grand Teton Music Festival – are relaxed and mature, without eccentricities or tricks. There’s no grandstanding here. No fake showmanship to add extra drama or excitement. 

Producer Vic Muenzer chose five Neumann M-150 tube microphones – modern versions of the mics originally used by Decca – arranged in a four-mic spaced-arrangement. Two mics are placed in the centre, and the other two are widely-spaced as outriggers.

Spot mics were used discreetly – mostly Schoeps MK4’s, plus Schoeps MK21’s on the violins, and a Telefunken TF11 for the double basses. Two Schoeps MK4s were used for surround. The piano was recorded with four mics – a pair of Schoeps MK2H’s plus a pair of DPA 4006’s with nose-cones. Grace preamps were used, and the music was recorded using an Avid HDX at 192kHz and 24bit. 

The result is very smooth and homogenous. There’s no sense of instrumental spotlighting, and soloist and orchestra are well integrated. For my taste though, the whole sound is dynamically flat and lacking in clarity and internal separation.

For example, brass and drums rarely make their presence felt, and the winds lack clear definition. I also found the bass a bit smeared and boomy at times. Despite being separately-miked, the double basses don’t cut through cleanly. They sound slightly boosted, as though given some EQ. The whole presentation is very smooth and blended, but sometimes a little bit muddy and recessed. 

The sound Reference Recordings achieve is very truthful and natural – much like what you’d hear sitting at middle-distance in a large spacious hall. The classic Ashkenazy/Solti Decca, for example, set gives more of a front-row seat. Which is best? Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste.

This Reference Recordings album is perfectly fine, but when you consider how advanced and vastly-better today’s technology is, the results are just a bit underwhelming. On paper the new recording should beat the pants off the 50 year old Decca. But in many ways that early 1970s set delivers a stronger more-present sound, with greater immediacy and excitement.

I streamed the Ohlsson recording from Qobuz at 192kHz/24bit using an AURALiC ALTAIR G2.1 streamer. Speakers were Klipsch Cornwall IVs which (having a horn loaded midrange and tweeter) are quite dynamic and detailed. Hopefully the hybrid SACDs will sound better than streaming– especially when the discs are played on a proper SACD player. 

Playing the standard red-book layer probably won’t give quite such good results, but (given a really good CD player) the differences between CD/SACD can sometimes be surprisingly small. However, in my particular set up using a Marantz 30n SACD player, there’s always has an added openness with SACD – a relaxed ease and transparency that even the best CDs never quite equal. 

For those with multi-channel systems, SACD gives the option of surround-sound playback. Summing up, Ohlsson and Runnicles offer good accounts, nicely recorded, but not the very-best. Among recent cycles, I’d choose the Zimerman/Rattle/LSO set on DG. But, with Reference Recordings offering their new set at a reasonable price, it’s definitely worth investigating. 

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