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
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
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.