I worried for no reason. This live recording of Benedetti-Michelangeli and Giulini is as electrifying today as it was exactly 30 years ago when first recorded. Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto holds a special place amongst his works for the instrument, profoundly Mozartean in structure and lyricism yet so Beethoven in many ways, especially the brutal harmonic contrasts present throughout. For me it marks the point in time when Beethoven truly had freed himself from past influences and started to develop his own symphonic voice which would culminate in the Fifth Piano Concerto or his Eighth and Ninth symphonies.
Although first to be published and hence called the "first", this piano concerto actually was Beethoven’s third attempt at the genre. The first was never published while what we now know as the Second Piano Concerto was actually composed ten years prior.
If you listen to a broad range of recordings of this work, you’ll find that they typically fall into two camps. The first, highly classical in spirit, creates a piano miniature with well-organized dialog between piano and orchestra and just enough sweetness and sugar to not offend. If that’s what you are after, Claudio Arrau is as good as it gets. Just wake me up when it’s over. The second camp where Richter/Munch and Benedetti-Michelangeli/Giulini reign masterfully brings up the contrasts, the boiling energy and the youthfulness in this concerto. Benedetti-Michelangeli takes every musical phrase and gives it a life that makes it soar and develop, moving it into a completely new light. There is nothing easy or complacent in his playing, just pure energy flowing from pianist to listener.
For once the Vienna Symphonic also delivered an interpretation that is electric and passionate, with none of that artificial Viennese sweetener that plagues half of their recordings. If you have ever seen Giulini direct as I have, the amusing thing is that he was a man of little movements and no visible emotion when facing an orchestra. Yet the smallest wave from his baton could unleash phenomenal orchestral mayhem. I suspect it was his trick to keep musicians focused on him and once again it works in this recording where the timing between piano and orchestra is perfect yet seemingly effortless. This is certainly not the most conventional version of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto but absolutely remains one of the most fascinating and energized. Twenty years later, I still love it to death.