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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op.19 (1793 revised 1794-95) [31.14]
Piano Concerto No. 5 Op.73 Emperor (1809) [43.29]
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded Kingsway Hall, London, March and April 1975
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 65838 2 [74.45]

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This has seldom out of the catalogues for long. I suppose the most pressing considerations regarding the Barenboim-conducted cycle of Beethoven Concertos are, firstly, how do you like your Rubinstein, svelte or more leisurely, and secondly how good is the sound quality of the latest transfer. To answer the second point first it sounds as good as it did, with no great improvement, given the inherent imbalance in the aural perspective. This saw the piano grandiloquently foregrounded and the resulting aural consequences can’t be eased. Thus in the Emperor we got important wind detail partially obscured, and some wind and oboe lines are halting. There is also a slightly congested middle frequency response throughout. Rubinstein’s playing is eloquent and poetic though somewhat devitalised in the light of the earlier cycles with Krips and Leinsdorf. Those runs in the first movement never sound quite crisp, decisive or climactic enough. He’s more obviously and limpidly lyrical in the slow movement with Barenboim, though at the cost of a certain heaviness. And as the recording level is relatively high it’s difficult for this last cycle to achieve real intimacy. There’s rather too much slowing down as well and the Leinsdorf reaches the kind of touching delicacy that this later traversal can’t aspire to. The gauze veil of the Boston strings for Leinsdorf are never devoid of tensile strength either; too often in London things come to a halt, a feature of the finale as well which has considerably less life and lift than with either previous cycle.

Again the strictures apply, though less so, to the Second Concerto. Here things aren’t as markedly slower as in previous readings, though enough very slightly to change the character of the music-making in all three movements. I think the con brio aspect of the first movement is far better transmitted in the Leinsdorf set though the warmly moulded slow movement has affectionate charm and depends on some internally contrastive material rather more starkly than had been the case in those earlier cycles. The finale is still full of genial élan, though the responses are – understandably, given his age – not quite as sharp. Of the three it’s the first movement that has lost most in the intervening years. But his tone of course, and despite the calculated imbalance of the recording, is always warmly lyric and always demands to be heard.

This is one of a number of famous and oft-reissued discs in the RCA Red Seal Classic Library series. Others include Stokowski’s Scheherazade (the 1975 RPO), Colin Davis’s Berlioz – the Staatskapelle recordings not the earlier LSO – and Fritz Reiner’s Rossini amidst much else. I wouldn’t put this Rubinstein disc on that level – but then he is in competition, not least with himself.


Jonathan Woolf

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