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Great Pianists: Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 8
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [34’02"]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 "Emperor"* [37’35"]
Benno Moiseiwitsch (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent;
*London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell
Recorded in No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 20 December 1950; *Kingsway Hall, London, 21 October 1938 ADD
NAXOS HISTORIC 8.110776 [71’37"]

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These are fascinating and somewhat idiosyncratic recordings, both made by HMV. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf, hit the nail squarely on the head, I think, in describing Moiseiwitsch’s approach as "elegant and poetic…[and] one that’s not devoid of drama but that subsumes it more to a lyric curve."

I must say it took me a while to adjust to Moiseiwitsch’s way with these works and even now I still feel that though the first movement of the Third concerto is efficiently played it’s not projected particularly distinctively, either by soloist or conductor. In his booklet note Jonathan Summers quotes a rather damning verdict on the recording, delivered when it was first issued, by the distinguished critic Andrew Porter. Porter described the interpretation as "shallow" and singled out Sargent’s accompaniment for particular criticism. I’m not sure I’d go all the way with Mr. Porter but the reading of the first movement is not especially memorable and I don’t believe it’s as searching or satisfying as Solomon’s 1944 traversal with Boult. Moiseiwitsch uses the cadenza by Carl Reinecke, which is interesting to hear for a change though, pace Mr. Summers, the pianism sounds a bit splashy hereabouts.

I enjoyed the slow movement much more. Moiseiwitsch’s tone is limpid and beautifully even at the start and, in fact, this sets the tone for the whole movement. . Moiseiwitsch plays much of it as though it were a nocturne. Here his poetic vein is heard to best advantage. The Rondo finale is enjoyable but it just seems to lack that indefinable "something". The best way I can describe it is to say that it comes across as a trifle cool, though the concluding presto (track 3, from 7’37") is done with spirit.

To my ears the earlier partnership with Szell works quite well. I can’t agree with Jonathan Summers’ view that Szell "conducts in his usual fashion of the martinet." The orchestral exposition is laid out with purpose and bite, as befits the music. When Moiseiwitsch joins the argument it’s true that he displays a more lyrical disposition but I don’t feel that his conception jars with that of Szell. This isn’t by any means a barnstorming performance of the movement and those that seek leonine strength in the music should probably look elsewhere. However, there’s much to admire. In particular there are some lovely touches by the soloist. For example there’s a passage in the first movement (track 4, 5’49" – 6’30") where Moiseiwitsch makes the music sound very withdrawn thanks to some delicate playing. Indeed, at this point the thread of tone sometimes fades away almost too much.

The second movement is hushed and inward. Moiseiwitsch gives a musing performance of subtlety and beauty. The transition to the finale is poetically done and that movement opens with lithe vigour. The reading of the finale as a whole is light and a bit puckish. Szell is an attentive and alert accompanist here and throughout the concerto.

In summary I would not prefer these performances to, say, Solomon in either work (No.3 with Boult in 1944 and No. 5 with Herbert Menges in 1955, both for EMI.) Nor among other historic accounts is my allegiance to Gilels’ 1957 reading of No. 5 (with Leopold Ludwig, originally on EMI, now on Testament) shaken. However, these Moiseiwitsch performances have their own strengths and insights and it’s good to have them restored to wide circulation.

The transfers for Naxos are by Ward Marston. The source for the recording of No. 3 was the original HMV tape (the recording itself was issued on 78’s by HMV). The sound is clear and has transferred well. For No. 5 he has used a set of American Victor 78s and these transfers also sounded well on my equipment though for optimum clarity this older recording should be replayed at a higher level than is required for No. 3.

This is a valuable addition to the Naxos Moiseiwitsch series and it’s well worth hearing.

John Quinn

See also review by Jonathan Woolf and Christopher Howell

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