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CD/Download: Pristine Classical

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1808)
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 30 September 1947, Abbey Road Studio No 1, London
PRISTINE PASC 165 [30:41] 
Experience Classicsonline

As I write this review in August 2009 this recording is just under two months short of being sixty-two years old. Had I listened to this amazing transfer by Andrew Rose without knowing that I would never have believed it possible. The recording sounds as if it had been set down perhaps in the 1960s.

This is, quite simply, one of the best transfers of an historical issue - which I define as being over fifty years old - that I can ever recall hearing. The sound is bright and clear, without ever being harsh. There's a satisfying degree of front-to-back perspective. The piano is truthfully reported, quite well forward in the aural picture, though not excessively so. Only very occasionally - say in the slightly thin oboe tone - does the recording betray its age. The dynamic range of the recording is good and there's no distortion. I presume some filtering of surface noise has taken place - there's almost no hiss, even when listening through headphones - but any such intervention has not been to the detriment of the music or its sonic reproduction. All in all, this is a significant achievement. In praising the transfer one must not overlook the skilled work of the post-War HMV engineers who captured the original recording.

This recording was originally issued by HMV on 78s but I don't know if it has made it onto CD - or even LP - before. I read on the Pristine website that the transfer has been made from 'a good, clean near-mint set of 78s'. The same note very honestly says that 'side joins are seamless - the only possible giveaway is an occasional hint of end-of-side distortion and treble roll-off.' Well, you'll have to have more acute hearing than I possess to spot those instances.

I'm not sure I can be quite so enthusiastic about the performance, good though it is in many ways. Pristine reproduce an enthusiastic review from the October 1949 issue of Gramophone by LS (Lionel Salter?) which concludes thus: 'So far as I am concerned, nobody need bother to record this concerto again: this performance is it!' Fortunately other pianists did record the concerto subsequently and, in my humble opinion, have offered different perspectives to that of Rubinstein and Beecham.

I think I'd describe the performance overall as direct. That's certainly how Rubinstein's delivery of the opening piano solo sounds to me. There's not the same degree of poetry and thoughtfulness in this short phrase that one finds with, say, Solomon in 1952 (EMI 7243 5 65503 2) or Gilels in 1957 (Testament SBT 1095). The more philosophical and lyrical view taken by these two pianists - and their respective conductors - and emulated by other artists since, is more to my taste in this, my favourite among the Beethoven piano concertos. Rubinstein's way with the opening solo is a fair harbinger of his style throughout the movement. He plays with clarity, objectivity and no little energy.

Beecham echoes his soloist's direct, even urgent approach throughout this movement - conducting very well and obtaining playing of great vitality from his recently established orchestra. Though I prefer a more reflective approach in this movement and in the work as a whole, the freshness of the performance by both soloist and orchestra is undeniably appealing. The very directness of the music-making is something that may well attract many collectors.

The noble slow movement is very well handled, Rubinstein's limpid playing subduing the orchestra. The finale is excellent. The reading has verve and drive. Occasionally I feared Rubinstein's fingers might run away with him but all is well and a feeling of exhilaration pervades the proceedings. Beecham conducts with élan and the movement ends, with great brio, in an exultant dash for the finishing line.

I should mention the cadenzas used by Rubinstein. I'd never heard them before though I noted while listening that they sounded very romantic and anachronistic. It was only subsequently that I learned from the Pristine website that the cadenzas are by Saint-Saëns. The one used in the finale need not detain us long; it's short and quite succinct. The first movement cadenza is another matter, however. It's a fairly extended examination of the movement's thematic material, which lasts for just over three minutes (from 12:55 to 16:00) but seems rather longer. To be honest it's out of scale, both in terms of length and style. Personally I regret Rubinstein's choice of what is something of a curiosity.

So I have some reservations about the performance but I'm glad to have added it to my collection. Rubinstein's legion of admirers will most certainly want to hear it. And though technological advances will no doubt continue it seems inconceivable that we will ever hear it in better sound than this splendid Pristine Audio offering.

John Quinn



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