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Claudio Arrau (piano)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 (1854-58)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No. 21 in C minor Op. 53 Waldstein (1803-04)
Claudio Arrau (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Basil Cameron
Recorded London 1947
URANIA SP 4216 [72.07]

 

From an interview between a pianist and his interlocutor; pianist first.

It was awful. I was going to say, "Who is this pianist?" The truth is that I found it very fast. I hated it. Much too fast.

Did you recognise yourself in the performance?

Not at all.

Not in any of the details?

Well, in some of the details. In the two solos. When I hear it now, so fast and so straightforward – I just can’t understand it. It loses all meaning. Where one expects some lingering, it is so metronomic.

The pianist was Claudio Arrau (Conversations with Arrau with Joseph Horowitz) and the performance by which he was so disappointed was this one, conducted by Basil Cameron and recorded in London in 1947. Arrau’s performances, hardly uniquely, grew progressively more measured over the years. The Cameron recording was faster than the Giulini, which in turn was faster than the Haitink; live performances from the 1970s confirm the trend as an absolute.

Part of the problem as Arrau himself acknowledged may have lain in his formative years. His teacher, Martin Krause, didn’t like the Brahms Piano Concertos and presumably didn’t teach them; he certainly didn’t teach them to Arrau. Consequently he came to them rather late, maybe in his later twenties, and this seems to have inculcated a sense of doubt in his mind, even though he was in his forties when he first came to make this recording with Cameron. One thing Arrau specifically noted in his playing was the "superficial excitement" which he explicitly weighed against the "spiritual values" that he found so singularly lacking in his younger self’s performance. Arrau generally denigrated much of his youthful playing as "too fast" and there was some critical evidence that the Berlin critics thought so too. Nevertheless this recording will strike many listeners as following well-established tempo norms and of demonstrating well-correlated balances between drive and lyricism.

One can judge that in the first movement where Arrau and Cameron take almost the exact same tempo as the slightly earlier 1945 Decca pairing of Curzon and Jorda. The piano receives rather too favourable a balance with Arrau – just too far in front of the orchestra for absolute comfort – but the compensatory features are the auditory clarity of Arrau’s passagework. He and Curzon stress the maestoso elements rather more so than the galvanisingly fleet Backhaus with Boult in 1932, whose drive would doubtless have horrified Arrau. What one notices in the performance, despite the pianist’s strictures, is the ease of the shaping of melodic lines and the detail Arrau’s points in his constantly mobile and articulate left hand. The slow movement sounds songful, lyrical and intimate. Typically Arrau couldn’t even bring himself to listen to it ("Maybe it was Cameron who pushed") but we can listen to his stressing of the upper left hand voicings and his altogether sympathetic playing – even though the orchestral passages are rather blunted by the recording. The finale is certainly slower than Curzon’s and it possesses strength and power if not magnetic drive. The orchestral basses sound rather lateral and spread and, taking Arrau’s considered view of the work, I would suppose that he found in the finale a microcosm of the greater faults in his reading; a lack of the cumulative and inevitable ascent to triumph implicit in the score. If the concerto is an assertion of the pianist’s physical and psychological will – Arrau was well versed in psychoanalysis – then his later performances would better embody those qualities. At least for him.

Coupled with the Concerto is the Waldstein Sonata, another 1947 recording. This is in clear sound but there are occasional shellac pops and ticks. In the slow movement there are also some laminate thumps. His playing here is again leonine and measured and has none of the Jovian banging about sometimes inflicted on its quasi-orchestral carapace. Instead there is a total avoidance of simplistic gestures and a sense of intense identification and involvement. The Columbia 1956 remake is probably better known than this decade-earlier 78 but the Philips cycle of the 32, made in 1963, is the best known.

As I said there are some imperfections in this transfer and no notes at all – but Arrau admirers will be able to live without them for the sake of these two examples of a self he later came to disavow but whose virtues are still illuminating and necessary.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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