© New York Times, 09/01/03
ou never know what will happen when artists of completely different backgrounds collaborate. Sometimes things just don't click, as in the director Fred Schepisi's inert 1985 film "Plenty," an adaptation of the David Hare play. You can almost sense the cast, which included Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman and Sting, thinking, "What are we doing here together?" Only John Gielgud as an aging diplomat is riveting, though he seems to be in his own movie.

Sometimes, though, the results of oddball artistic pairings can be fascinating in all senses of the term. This is certainly true of a new Teldec Classics recording, a three-CD set, of the five Beethoven piano concertos performed by the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It's hard to think of two musicians with more contrasting backgrounds.

The Dutch-born Mr. Harnoncourt, 73, gained attention as a pioneer in the early-music movement. His landmark 1960's recordings of Bach, especially the two Passions, lithe performances with the original-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus of Vienna, altered perceptions about this essential repertory.

In the last 15 years he has increasingly performed Classical and Romantic works with modern instrument ensembles, even Bruckner symphonies and Strauss waltzes with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has appeared frequently with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, an ensemble of 50 players who have independent careers but come together for an extended period each season. Among the recordings Mr. Harnoncourt and the orchestra have made is a complete survey of the Beethoven symphonies, strongly individual interpretations that were both acclaimed as revelations and criticized as mannered.

Mr. Aimard, born in Lyon, France, in 1957, would seem to be Mr. Harnoncourt's opposite. In 1977, fresh from the Paris Conservatory and not yet 20, he was invited by Pierre Boulez to be a founding member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He stayed for 18 years.

Within contemporary-music circles Mr. Aimard was hailed for his brilliant playing of daunting modern works. Only in recent years has he attracted attention outside that specialized field. A turning point was his remarkable Carnegie Hall debut recital in 2001, a program of Berg, Beethoven, Debussy, Liszt and Ligeti, subsequently released as a live recording on Teldec.

In disarming liner notes to the Beethoven concerto set Mr. Aimard admits that not long ago he would have deemed "preposterous" the very idea of adding yet another account of these war horses to a market already saturated with high-quality recordings. "I had always preferred to do something `useful,' " Mr. Aimard writes, "by recording music not found in catalogs, especially the works of our own time."

But when Mr. Harnoncourt asked him to collaborate on the Beethoven project, he found the invitation too intriguing to resist. "To some, we seemed to be fundamentally opposed through our musical cultures, the type of repertoire we championed, our respective images," Mr. Aimard writes. "It turned out, however, that this experience was the most natural, the most moving, the most fortunate that one could imagine."

Though my respect for Mr. Aimard is so complete that I could not wait to hear these recordings, at first I found the performances baffling. Clearly here were two artists approaching repertory staples from different orientations, trying to reconcile their instincts and make these familiar works sound fresh. But musicians who are determined to bring new perspectives to standard repertory can wind up distorting the music by doing something, anything that will make their interpretations sound different. Performers from the early-music movement have been especially prone to this temptation, and initially I found that fault in Mr. Harnoncourt's work here.

The set presents the concertos chronologically, beginning with No. 2 in B flat (composed first but published second). In the opening exposition Mr. Harnoncourt's penchant for breaking up phrases into clear segments is in full operation. After the orchestra plays the hardy opening statement of the theme, there is an extra breath before the strings answer with the soft, lyrical second phrases. The problem is that that slight pause sounds calculated, as if making a point was as important as shaping the phrase.

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- Frank B.
Piano World