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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor
Carnaval Op.9
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata in F minor Op.57 Appassionata *
Piano Sonata in C minor Op.111
* Solomon (piano)
Claudio Arrau (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by George Hurst
Four films made in London and Paris, 1956, 1961, 1963, 1970
B/W Mono PAL 4:3
EMI CLASSICS DVD DVB 4928389 [1 DVD: 113 mins]


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This fascinating DVD may be in danger of missing its target audience. The front cover announces only "Claudio Arrau" and yet the best reason for owning it is the presence of a "bonus" item. Nothing less than the only film in existence of the great pianist Solomon, and giving a magisterial performance of the Appassionata. Since he suffered his debilitating stroke within months of this performance he has to be regarded as caught at the height of his powers. For me this 20 minutes is enough reason to own the DVD. Why have the marketeers not made more of this? But do not let a production oversight put you off an essential purchase. Arrau turns in fine performances of Beethoven and Schumann, even if he isn’t Solomon.

Let us dispose of the technicalities first. All four films are archive quality black and white and the sound tracks are mono. Solomon’s film from 1956 is satisfactory for its period and Arrau’s film of the Schumann Concerto is also acceptable for 1963. There is some sound and picture disturbance in the 1961 Carnaval performance but it passes and the 1970 Arrau Beethoven performance, though the most recent, does include a short period of flutter. The picture at this point is also rather gritty. The camera stays mainly on the pianists and especially their fingers, has little of the pointless wandering that stands in for "production" in modern music films and there is no arty stuff at all. Current producers please note.

Interpretatively there is much interest in these four performances. If one just wanted to hear these artists then much superior audio recordings are available, so one’s attention must be on the most important visual aspects. Both these keyboard masters are calm and concentrated in their manner. There is no flamboyant flailing of the arms such as some artists display. Perhaps my excitement at seeing Solomon on film at all made his seem the more concentrated and impressive manner. This pair hale from different schools of pianism, Solomon uses the sharply arched fingers of the Leschetizky school, rarely seen nowadays, whereas Arrau plays with the more flattened fingers commonly used today. The natural interest of collector-viewers in the pianos used is frustrated by the BBC’s decorous obscuring of the manufacturer’s name in their films. Only in Arrau’s Beethoven, sourced from France, are we allowed to see the name Steinway and Sons. Arrau’s performance of the Schumann Concerto is good but unremarkable. If the picture were not the overriding reason to buy the disc I would say go back to Dinu Lipatti for a well nigh perfect rendering with sound not much more archaic than the present issue. Lipatti’s performance is more passionate and shows more willing use of rubato. Also he has the benefit of a more characterful orchestral accompaniment from the Philharmonia and Karajan than is provided by George Hurst and the London Philharmonic. But of course the picture is important and it is very absorbing to see a master performer in action. Any serious collector already has Lipatti, and probably Solomon too, in this concerto. Carnaval is much more a one-man show, since the cameraman is well under control, and here Arrau is clearly in his element. I liked the BBC production decision to use the score title page for each "scene". In a work this complex it helps. Arrau has full command of Schumann’s subtle use of rhythm in these wonderful variations. At times one is caught completely off guard by the sheer modernity of the writing. The Beethoven Sonata Op.111 absorbed me less but others may well be more on a wavelength with Arrau.

Finally to Solomon. Superlatives are always heaped on this pianistic genius for his total technical control as well as apparently effortless revelation of the music. This Appassionata is magnificent in every respect: dramatic and lyrical by turns. And what turns! The way in which Solomon controls the lightning changes of mood is breathtaking. Does my bias show? Well, never mind, it is wonderful to be able to see him in action and to have confirmed what those able to attend a concert have always said, he was a musician non-pareil and absolutely in command. I was most taken by his quietly satisfied smile and bow to the camera at the end of this studio film.

An essential purchase for lovers of great musicianship and for a unique opportunity to actually see Solomon in action.

Dave Billinge

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