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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat, op. 73 Ė "Emperor"
(1),
Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 5/2
(2)
Artur Schnabel (pianoforte), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent (1), Gregor Piatigorsky (violoncello) (2)
Recorded 24.3.1932, Abbey Road Studio no. 1 (1), 6 & 16.12.1934, Abbey Road Studio no. 3 (2)
NAXOS Historical 8.110640 [60.07]


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Reviewing the Naxos reissues of the 3rd and 4th Concertos in this series, I found the orchestral sound stridently poor but the piano sound quite good. In the "Emperor" the orchestra sounds worse still, with a shrill, piercing edge to the upper strings and raucous wind, and not even the piano is very pleasant, clattery and jangly above a mezzo-piano. I havenít heard other transfers but I refuse to believe a 1932 recording has to sound this bad. I certainly hope not, for the performance is enthralling. The London Symphony Orchestra at that time ought to have been inferior to the London Philharmonic (used for the 3rd and 4th) but maybe Sargent had better relations with them for this is really taut, splendid Beethoven conducting and hardly a string portamento in sight. With this backdrop Schnabel himself is at his best. The tempo for the first movement is surely ideal, majestic and very exciting when required, but with all the time in the world to express the more poetic moments without losing momentum. In short, all aspects of the music are effortlessly encompassed. After a slightly stiff introduction from Sargent the slow movement has a singing nobility without any unnecessary pulling of the phrases out of shape. Only in the finale do Schnabelís nerves show a little and he has difficulty in shaping the main theme clearly, his excitement apparently getting the better of him. But Sargent is a tower of strength and holds things on course, and in fact Schnabel recovers his composure rapidly.

The cello sonata is rather dully recorded, but the sound is unobjectionable. It is notable that the balance and the dialogue between the instruments is better than on many modern recordings, presumably because the performers got it so right themselves. Schnabel was a wonderful chamber player and one can just sit back and hear two great musicians enjoying making music together Ė the very essence of what chamber music is all about.

As you can see, the foul recording of the Concerto didnít stop me from appreciating what a great performance it is, so perhaps others will feel the same way. All the same, if would-be purchasers donít vote with their feet Naxos will go on making transfers like this, so I suggest waiting till something better turns up.

Christopher Howell


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