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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15 (1797) [40’38”]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 19 (1795) [30’52”]

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1801) [36’48”]

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (1806) [35’32”]

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”, (1809) [41’05”]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa.
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston, on October 5th (No.1), July 3rd 1984, (No.2), October 2nd and 4th (No.3), October 6th 1981 (No.4), and January 24th and 26th 1981 (No. 5). DDD
TELARC CD-80061 [3 CDs: 71.06 + 71.32 + 41.14]

Piano concertos recorded by Rudolf Serkin in his twilight years have been somewhat sniffily received by many critics. In this case I am happy to relate that the only problem is the extensive competition in the current catalogue. Pianists of every age worth their salt have set down their own versions. There are so many that any newcomer is bound to find it difficult in today’s crowded scene. The present issue has Seiji Ozawa as conductor and he is often received in much the same way as the soloist.

Prejudices aside I found these recordings to be performances of great integrity, showing both strength and clarity. Serkin is superbly accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their home hall. Symphony Hall is well known for its illustrious acoustic properties, not always ideally captured. Here however it communicates as a superb example of acoustic excellence captured to perfection by the Telarc engineers.

Serkin’s technique throughout is a model of excellence. I enjoyed these traditional performances as much as any I have ever heard on disc. Tempi are ‘middle of the road’ (i.e. no rushed speeds, nor over slow) with an accuracy astonishing for a pianist in his eighties.

The three discs were previously available separately and only the third is very poor in terms of total playing time. Now however, released as a boxed set at mid-price, this concern is less valid, and any purchaser wanting these works/artists, may go ahead in the knowledge that what they are about to hear is as good as it gets.

As I listened to all of the concertos one after the other, I was struck by the consistency throughout. Serkin’s earlier performances with conductors such as Bernstein, Ormandy and Szell had perhaps a little more zest about them but in all cases the sound quality was significantly worse. In addition, when compared with period performances using much smaller bands, Serkin’s massive technique would sound out of character. In any case, I can’t imagine the orchestral performances being superseded.

No, this recording need not fear anything from comparison with any of the competing versions, except being drowned by their sheer number. Telarc’s main problem would appear to be how to make this set sufficiently different in the shops to draw in the purchaser; I will leave it up to their marketing department to devise a strategy. It is a very difficult problem in today’s market. I wish them every success in trying to improve this set’s visibility in-store and by companies selling discs through mail order or the internet.

Make no mistake, these recordings deserve to do very well, and Telarc are to be thanked for making them available once again in a superb acoustic and in first class digital sound.

John Phillips



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