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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concertos
Various artists as listed below
historical recordings
ANDANTE AND1995 [4CDs: 263’09: 60’04+65’56+62’23+74’46]

 

Piano Concertos: No. 1 in C, Op. 15a (1795) [32’10]; No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19b (1798) [27’54]; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) [33’19]c, [32’37]d; No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (1806) [29’00]e, [33’23]f; No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 (1809) [37’37]g, [37’09]h.
aAnia Dorfmann, bWilliam Kapell, cMarguerite Long, dArtur Rubinstein, eWalter Gieseking, fClara Haskil, gRudolf Serkin, hArtur Schnabel (pianos); abdNBC Symphony Orchestra/adArturo Toscanini, bVladimir Golschmann; cOrchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paris/Felix Weingartner; eSaxon State Orchestra/Karl Böhm; fLondon Philharmonic Orchestra/Carl Zecchi; gPhilharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter; hPhilharmonia Orchestra/Alceo Galliera.
From Victor aM-1036, bM-1132, dM-1016, French Columbia cLFX581/4, eLFX709/12, fDecca 1944/1947, gColumbia Masterworks M-500, hHMV DB9326/30. Rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, on aAugust 9th, 1945, bJune 24th, 1946, gDecember 22nd, 1941, cStudio Albert, Paris, June 9th-10th, 1939, dStudio 8-H, New York City, October 29th, 1944 (live broadcast), eJanuary 3rd, 1939, fKingsway Hall, London, on June 7th, 1947, hAbbey Road Studios, London, on May 27th-28th, 1947. mono

 

All students of Beethoven, or of piano playing, should have at least a listen to this set. It archives a collection of performances by a varied set of personality-types, all of a generation now lost. Some names boast large discographies (Rubinstein, Schnabel …). Others, for whatever reason, appear more rarely on the shelves.

Of course this is playing of another era, and the more historically informed listener may react adversely to some of what is on offer. Those that do not, however, will find enormous amounts to delight and, indeed, to refresh the ear.

Ania Dorfmann was a pianist based initially in Paris who recorded for UK Columbia between 1931 and 1938. She relocated to New York, having debuted there on November 1937, and it was in that city that she established a rapport with the great Arturo Toscanini (she was the first female soloist to feature under his baton). Here Andante give us the 1945 RCA Victor studio recording of Beethoven’s First Concerto that followed on the heels of the Dorfmann/NBC/Toscanini broadcast cycle of 1944. Notably, she opts for the longest of Beethoven’s three cadenzas (for the broadcast, Jed Distler tells us in his excellent annotations, she used Reinecke’s). Transfer quality is excellent (as we have come to expect from this source by now). Interpretatively, Dorfmann, for all her digital dexterity, seems perhaps too influenced by the forbidding giant on the podium. The orchestral exposition is hard-driven, typically Toscanini, with no let-up for the second subject, and it is all very neat (the latter a quality that certainly epitomises Dorfmann’s playing). As for Dorfmann herself, she lets little laughter in, so one is left to marvel at the fluency of her scales and the dynamism of her cadenza (10’40 on).

The contrast with the Largo second movement is emphasised (probably not purposefully) by the short space between the tracks. Some string portamento dates the recording. A pity Dorfmann is rather literal here, and that at 3’09-3’10 piano and orchestra unfortunately arrive at the same spot at different times. The piano-clarinet dialogue towards the end of the movement does act as a decidedly redeeming factor, however, and at last in the finale Dorfmann seems primed to allow herself to let her hair down. There is more than an element of cheek to her playing at the start, and all looks set to provide an exhilarating close. A shame, then, that the orchestra emerges as crowded and shrill in the recording. This No. 1 is not without interest, but it cannot be classed as a highlight of the set. It seems trying to smile, but it always just fails.

The death of William Kapell in a plane crash in 1953 robbed us of a major talent still at the tender age of 31. He was 23 when he made this recording in June 1946. The orchestra is again that of the NBC, but this time Vladimir Golschmann is at the helm. If the orchestral exposition is rather routine (and the tempo may initially seem a bit ‘under’), Kapell provides some very alive playing (although he can be splashy at times). Interesting that more youthful exuberance would have been welcome – requesting that from a supposedly thrusting young virtuoso seems strange!. The highlight of the movement is the cadenza, which emerges as a well-rounded statement rather than gratuitous and sectionalised show: and yet the technique remains a thing of wonder within itself.

If the tempo the Adagio may seem on the funereal side, it is nevertheless eloquent, despite some suggestions along the way of heavy-handedness from the orchestra. Kapell, on the other hand, is uniformly miraculous, rapt and enthralling. The finale brings the amazingly nimble finger-work of a stunning technique, even if a sense of true joy is, in the final analysis, missing. The ending, as a result, sounds rather superficial and abrupt.

Marguerite Long’s Third Concerto is one of two recordings on this set that date from 1939 (the other being Gieseking’s Fourth). The Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paris is conducted by the great Felix Weingartner, and how they play for him!. Yes, the sound is distanced (and there is some distortion, notably at the end of the orchestral exposition), but the music fizzes along with an ominous C minor-ish energy that cannot but drag the listener in.

Long was perhaps more associated with the music of Ravel, Debussy, Fauré and Milhaud (she worked personally with all of them) and she premiered Ravel’s G major Concerto and Le tombeau de Couperin. Here in Beethoven her intrinsic sensibilité shines through. She displays some interpretative quirks in her handling of the lyrical second subject, and she is in general certainly not afraid of rubato. She is suave, and even almost cheeky at times. Possibly most interesting of all is her eschewing Beethoven’s own cadenza (sometimes seen as weak – and here I agree with its detractors) in favour of that by Ignaz Moscheles (1784-1870). Moscheles’ effort, instead of beginning with a forceful assertion of self, rather meanders out of the preceding orchestral chord. It is fascinating as a ‘period piece’, both of Moscheles and of the time (1939) that allowed it to be put down – today it is rare to hear anything other than Beethoven’s essay. Long plays it with real affection and belief and also enjoys the more barn-storming moments. Well worth hearing.

The slow movement is a thing of beauty. Both soloist and orchestra shape the music to perfection; both exhibit true harmonic sensitivity. Similarly the finale is more than satisfying musically. Note the sustained string chord thirty seconds in, against the soloist’s composed improvisation – a rather strange effect, presumably with no concrete musicological justification.

For the last three concertos, Andante gives us alternative versions. In the case of No. 3, it is Rubinstein’s New York broadcast from October 29th 1944 – again the NBC forces conjoined with Toscanini do the honours. This represents the one and only collaboration of these artists. Andante’s booklet notes look on the bright side/do a hard sell (take your pick). I say it’s just as well we have the Long/Weingartner.

The opening is unbearably sluggish, almost as if Beethoven is heaving himself out of bed. The sound is harsh, the stiff of treble-laden tin. Contrast Toscanini the ‘band-master’ against Weingartner’s sense of the score’s ebb and flow, and the difference becomes apparent. There is a sense of everybody going through the motions (the booklet tells us of the artists’ disagreements and unsuitability on first meeting – listen to the ensemble at 6’38 in the first movement, as the orchestra joins (not) the soloist at the end of a descending C minor scale, and it is clear the two were not as one in vision). The cadenza this time is more familiar (Beethoven), but revised Busoni, so that the opening bars are excised and it begins with the octave canon (there are further tinkerings later on, too). The Largo’s initial piano statement contains hints of the feeling of rushing that comes later on in this movement. The finale begins strangely, with Rubinstein leaning more than usual on the neighbour-note A flat, giving it far more than its share of the attention (it is metrically emphasised, anyway). The music never really takes off, although there is admittedly more brio here than in all of the first movement. The fugato may surprise some, for it begins (4’15) with an intrusive, ugly, swelling slur. Rubinstein joins in the concluding orchestral tutti, after which an appreciative audience (more appreciative than I have been, anyway) reminds us that they were there all the time. A shame the only way one could really work out this performance’s live status is through tracking the wrong notes and slips, rather than feeling the electricity of an event.

The pitting of Walter Gieseking against Clara Haskil in the Fourth promised much. Here are two pianists renowned for their sensibilité. First, Gieseking, in the fastest of his three studio versions. The sound is superb for its vintage (1939), the orchestra (Saxon State Orchestra) on top form, a couple of scrappy moments in the finale aside. Despite all this, it is Gieseking’s genius that shines through. Gieseking displays quicksilver responses to Beethoven’s shifting moods in the first movement. Technically, he is superb (those trills!). He opts for Beethoven’s second cadenza (as do Gilels, Brendel and Moravec) and here Gieseking is almost Glenn Gould-like in his deliberately dry sound. An intense slow movement leads to a finale again characterised by a certain dryness, yet which also contains remarkable delicacy and definition.

Haskil plays the more usual first movement cadenza. Her warmth of sound is immediately apparent, right from the first chord – there is no doubt we are entering a G major area of much warmth. Her approach to this movement is more spacious than Gieseking’s – all detail counts. In addition, there is more of a feeling that the orchestra in in secure hands (Carlo Zecchi). There is a sense of serenity and space – yet after such a promising beginning, come the eight-minute mark there is a suspicion of running out of steam. The cadenza is remarkable for being more a ruminative exploration of foregoing themes than any sort of display vehicle. The contrasts of piano and strings in the slow movement is marked. Haskil evokes a predictably interior world (she is magical here). A pity then that the finale is rather earth-bound (but admittedly in a pretty way). Swings and roundabouts for the Fourth, then, with both pianists exhibiting distinct strengths – and weaknesses.

And so to the grandest of all, the so-called ‘Emperor’ and two pianists with a ‘bond’. It was Schnabel who encouraged the young Serkin. Andante give us the first of Serkin’s (four) recorded traversals of the score, and his only partnering with Bruno Walter. This is an account that oozes confidence. Serkin’s annunciatory flourishes show the sinewy strength that runs through the entire performance (and when they return they are, if anything, even more breathtaking), while Walter’s ensuing orchestral passage reveals the conductor’s intimate knowledge of the score. This is a predominantly dynamic conception, yet one that does not preclude delicacy.

The slow movement is nearly the dream it should be. It is just a tad too hard-pressed (some very nervous sounding bassoon playing heralding the bridge to the finale – 7’32 – perhaps indicates the pressure of the moment), while the finale proceeds from an explosive beginning to passages that dance under Serkin’s fingers of steel.

And so to the great Schnabel, here with the Philharmonia under Alceo Galliera in 1947, the last of his three recorded versions (there is a 1932 under Sargent and a 1942 with the Chicagoans under Stock). There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned from this final disc of Andante’s, for when one listens to Serkin, one can be convinced and sometimes moved. The immediate comparison with Schnabel, however, highlights the shift from excellent pianist to musician of genius. Schnabel provides not only supreme pianism, but miracles of interpretation, too. Perhaps, it is true, the orchestra can sound as if it is going through the motions on occasion (perhaps they needed a greater conductor than Galliera to galvanise them into matching their pianist). Schnabel’s scalic work is astonishingly defined. If there is one criticism, the return of the opening flourishes (around twelve minutes in) maybe could have been even more exultant.

Any criticism is silenced, however, by the slow movement, where Schnabel makes the piano sing. There is extreme beauty here and the sheer concentration is heart-stopping. And quite right, for the finale comes as an enormous release, its onset this time having a real emotional point. Schnabel’s model dexterity is a thing of wonder, yet it is subsumed with a majesty that is surely the ‘Emperor’ incarnate.

Riches galore, then. This sort of comparative listening is to be encouraged, as it not only contextualises interpretations historically but it consistently sheds light on scores we thought we knew. If there is one lesson to be learned, it I that these scores continue to offer an infinity of riches. And in the present, early twenty-first century climate of squeaky-clean ‘virtuosi’ (I use the inverted commas very deliberately) and production-line Beethoven, it has become all too easy to forget that basic fact. To clothe historic performances such as these as classily as this company does, with informed critical comment in the form of Jed Distler’s stimulating essay, is no small leap of faith.

Bravo brave Andante.

Colin Clarke

 

 



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