July 2019 by Colin Clarke - Fanfare
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 Phillip Kawin (pn); Gerard Schwarz, cond; Russian Nat O MASTER PERFORMERS 19.001 (DVD & Bluray: 38:02) All of Phillip Kawin's performances that have come my way have always exuded mastery of every aspect of performance, from technique through to the depth of interpretation. The same excellence pervades this performance of Beethoven's C-Minor Concerto, a studio account filmed in the Rakhmaninov Concert Hall in Moscow, without audience. The director, Paul Carasco, has both a musician's ear (he is a noted pianist himself) and an artistic eye: he guides us effortlessly, and without jarring, to the correct musical contributors but also finds angles of some beauty (taking into account the blue background behind the orchestra).
The first Allegro con brio is taken in four to a measure, with Gerard Schwarz relaxing into two beats per measure in the more lyrical exchanges later in the movement. Antiphonal violins add to the transparency. The orchestral sound is warm yet alive, with woodwind particularly impressive (and expressive) in all movements, particularly perhaps in the central Largo. The strength of Kawin's interpretation is underlined by the resonance between pianist and conductor. In its demeanour, with its emphasis on warmth and detail as opposed to tension generated by speed, in many ways this account reminded me of Stephen Kovacevich's Philips recording with the BBC Symphony and Sir Colin Davis (then just "Colin Davis"). Definition and detail are remarkable in the Master Performers release, even including the gleaming articulation of the gestural piano descents back into the movement's powerful main theme. The piano cadenza (the standard one by Beethoven) is majestic, with an underlying confidence that enables it to work as few other pianists have realized, the fire of the F minor triplet section coming from within and yet still stirring for the listener. The later outer-voice dialog around the internal trills, too, makes its mark, the ensuing single trills melding seamlessly into to the re-entry of the orchestra.
The central Largo is taken at a perfectly flowing tempo, noble, dignified, restrained with myriad beauties, not least from the orchestra. The woodwind contributions are highly expressive, but so is the tender string passage just prior to the final measures. The contrast with the finale is marked, the latter finding Kawin's articulation in sparkling form; yet the contrasting episodes are able to exist in an expansive space, while the tempo means that the coda can be taken at a pace that respects the brio of the passage and yet still allows each and every note to resound and speak fully. The close-ups of Schwarz enable us to see just what a communicator he is with his musicians.
The maturity and integrity of this entire performance is remarkable. In a catalog that features myriad excellent performances of this masterwork, featuring approaches as different as Aimard, Backhaus and Cliburn (to take only the A, B and C of it), it is quite something to offer a distinctive take that is, within itself, fully consistent, but that is what Kawin and Schwarz offer; that this is part of a projected cycle is clearly cause for celebration. Two discs are included, one Bluray, one DVD; the increased visual clarity of Bluray increasingly pulls me in that medium's direction here and elsewhere.
Sometimes I regret that I don’t know everything. Oh, I’ve claimed that I do often enough; but usually the person I am talking to suddenly walks quickly across the street and pretends to be intensely studying the manure display in the window of the farm supplies store. Lately I’ve been wondering whether I should stop claiming this omniscience. It has recently come to my attention that I only know almost everything. For example, believe it or not, I didn’t know until quite recently that such a person as Phillip Kawin existed. There has been probative evidence of this, but it is scant: a CD of a recital featuring music by Beethoven, Schumann, and Prokofiev was released eight years ago and is still available; also a Schubert disc. But now he has revealed himself in all his glory with this performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (note that two discs are included, one in the DVD format and one on Blu-ray, you can choose your poison—I should say, choose your ambrosia. Unfortunately there are no booklets or notes included).
Most pianists are at their most thrilling while involved in a grand crescendo. But Kawin grips your heart with his subito piano. He goes from the most turbulent emotions to heartbreaking caresses in a way that I’ve only heard from one other artist: Vladimir Ashkenazy. But with Kawin, you feel the power that lurks below. It’s like comparing Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Well, Ashkenazy has many entries in the catalog, including all the mature piano concertos of Mozart, which I’ve never gotten over—pure gold. Now we need the other four Beethoven concertos from Kawin and ideally, much more. He is accompanied here by Gerard Schwarz, one of the most underrated conductors of the century. I lived in Seattle during his tenure as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, a post he held for more than 20 years, during which the ensemble went from the orchestral boondocks to world class. And here, he draws a superb performance from the Russian National Orchestra. Kawin and Schwarz—together they’re dynamite. Buy it.