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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’ in E flat major, Op. 73 (1810) [37:19]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [37:19]
Vladimir Horowitz, piano
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Rec. 26 April 1952 (Beethoven); 8, 10 April 1951 (Rachmaninov), Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110787 [74:49]


Recorded about a year apart over fifty years ago these new transfers have come up sounding very fine indeed. That’s the more valuable in the case of the Beethoven, which is the less well known and well remembered of the concertos recorded by Horowitz. In the case of the Rachmaninov we of course have three commercial discs from which to choose – should we wish to choose – of which the Reiner was the middle traversal.

Fearing the worst for the Beethoven, a performance I’d not heard in a long time, I was pleasantly surprised. That kind of patronising circumlocution tends to be trotted out for Horowitz in this repertoire, a fact for which, as Stephen Spender might have put it, he often had only himself to blame. True there are some distracting accents in the opening run and throughout and there are some Hofmannesque left hand incursions to tease the balances but in the main Horowitz resists the temptation to force through his tone. And yes the slow movement tends to be a touch too rococo – really too decorative – to plumb great depths or open out Solomonesque vistas. But the finale sports some big accents and a degree of winsomely externalised show; also a bit metrical in places. But on balance it’s a nicely characterised and personalised recording, sitting to one side of the dynasty of recording hierarchies in this work and not encroaching on it. And a recording that all Horowitz watchers need to get to know, along with the sonatas he recorded.

The companion is terra cognita and it’s also the more re-released performance. Reiner once more conducts the RCA Victor Symphony with enviable control and Horowitz is at his quixotic best. What can’t be gainsaid, no matter how good the restoration, is the skewed balance in which the beloved soloist is elevated to the Empyrean heights and the band to the cloakroom. Orchestral counter themes emerge half submerged and occluded and the connective tissue between soloist and orchestra is therefore all too often tentative in the extreme. Of course there have been far worse balanced recordings but this isn’t good and can’t be made to sound good. Horowitz himself fuses magisterial passagework, gargantuan rhythmic caprice and stentorian power – and just listen to the glittering weight he evinces in the slow movement. Yes, you should probably favour the 1930 recording over this and the Ormandy in all but recorded sound (leaving balance to one side) but you should in all seriousness have the Barbirolli led live performance on APR which is probably the most incandescent you will ever hear and the same goes for the companion Tchaikovsky. When working with an accompanist with whom he felt genuinely sympathetic (and that excludes Toscanini and Reiner) Horowitz was truly and imperishably unleashed.

Taken from LPs the restoration work is here of a high standard but you will find that little can avail the Rachmaninov in respect of inherent problems. No matter, comparisons between decades are invariably instructive with Horowitz and for all the frailties here you should certainly get to know these performances, especially at Naxos’s price; it will cost me more to get to and from work tomorrow than to buy this disc.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Michael Cookson

 

 

 



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