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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Op. 37 (? 1800)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Op. 58 (1805-06)
Arthur Rubinstein (piano) with Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York /Eugene Ormandy recorded 27 June 1943 (No 3)
Josef Hofmann (piano) with Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York /Dimitri Mitropoulos recorded 22 August 1943 (No 4)
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1114 [63.54]


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These two live performances were captured for posterity two months apart in New York. They document a pianist coming to the end of a glorious career – and in somewhat intermittently inglorious decline – and another pianist who, though already fifty-seven, had another thirty years or so of concert giving and recording ahead of him. Hofmann, whose 1924 Brunswicks are one of the wonders of the pianistic world, was a famously controversial Beethovenian. The live 1941 broadcast of the Fourth Concerto with the Philharmonic-Symphony conducted by John Barbirolli has done the rounds before and is generally admired. This slightly later broadcast with Mitropoulos both reinforces and clarifies features of his concerto performances and does so to considerable, albeit mixed, advantage.

As ever with Hofmann the ear is confronted with some modulatory bars before the initial piano entry in the Concerto in G. This was a habit of certain Golden Age pianists but I must admit I didn’t realise the practice extended to launching thus one of the greatest works in the repertoire. He is nevertheless in fine technical form – and one should absorb the hyper-explosive bass accents he unleashes from time to time in the opening movement as examples of incinerating, echt Romanticism at its most brazen. There are highly personalised moments of left-right hand balance and some Hofmannesque voicings that will catch the unwary off guard. He plays the Reinecke cadenza. Mitropoulos follows with incisive commitment; nothing neurotic intrudes. As for the slow movement, well it’s of considerable interest. Not only does Hofmann not play synchronous chords – left hand before right was the expected practice of many pianists of his generation – but he also actually rolls his chords in the solo piano’s second statement. There’s touching up and there’s touching up and even for me – one who basks in the glories of individualised and personalised musical performance – this smacks of prettifying. His whole ethos here is in fact very cool, despite this, or because of it. Indistinct voicings make themselves apparent in the last movement – the melody line is not always audible – and as he leaps into the cadenza with a cavalier drive his leonine drama-laced peroration is just too exaggerated and pleased with itself for genuine musical sympathy. Highly interesting to hear one of the giants of course but too idiosyncratic for a general recommendation.

After which Rubinstein comes as a much more central interpretation - though one not without its own points of interest. I felt that the first movement of the Concerto in C minor (Music & Arts have it as the Concerto in C) was rather bedevilled by Rubinstein’s occasionally self-conscious phrasing. As a result it lacks a certain amount of inner tension though of itself it’s quite quick –his rubati are good and his accelerandi somewhat combustible. I liked the Busoni modified Beethoven cadenza which Rubinstein despatches with aplomb. It’s doubtless not Ormandy’s fault that sometimes the bass line sounds muddy and indistinct – and equally that Rubinstein does sound a little withdrawn in the Largo. By the fugato episode in the finale the playing is dashing and there is some finely etched orchestral playing and if the performance as a whole is rather inconsistent it is at least consistently inconsistent. Rubinstein recorded the Concerto five times in all – Toscanini in 1944, Krips in 1956, Leinsdorf in 1965, Dorati in 1967 and Barenboim in 1975 - though doubtless other live traversals will turn up.

This has been a most rewarding if occasionally infuriating listen. The presentation is first class and Gary Lemco’s notes full of curiosity and interest. If I am less impressed by the performances than he is then at least he makes his case with care and judgement.

Jonathan Woolf



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