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Clifford Curzon. Decca Recordings 1949-1964 Volume 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor
London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell, recorded 1949
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor
London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell, recorded 1950
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Four Impromptus D935
Recorded 1952
Sonata in D major D850
Recorded 1964
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Variations Symphoniques
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult, recorded 1958
Henry LITOLFF (1818-1891)

Scherzo (From Concerto Symphonique No. 4) Op. 102
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult, recorded 1958
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Nights in the Gardens of Spain
New Symphony Orchestra/Enrique Jorda, recorded 1951
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)

Piano Concerto No. 2
London Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent, recorded 1951
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major K488
Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major K595
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell, recorded December 1964
Clifford Curzon (piano) with accompaniments as above
Recorded 1949-1964
DECCA 473 116-2 [4 CDs: 71.24 + 69.46 + 75.29 + 58.01]
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Times have seldom been better for Curzon admirers. This is the first of Decca’s two boxes devoted to him and is full of important things. Meanwhile his appearance in Philips’ ‘Great Pianists of the Century’ series unearthed previously unreleased Mozart concerto performances. Dutton and Pearl have both issued some of his earlier commercial sides in recommendable transfers. Since this hypercritical pianist refused release of such a wealth of material it’s fortunate that a good slice is now being liberated. Similarly German companies are busy issuing his live performances – Orfeo to the fore – whilst in his native country the BBC has been steadily unveiling some impressive broadcast or live recitals.

This timely box is part, I hope, of a continuum of appreciation for a musician of heartbreaking probity. If Solomon was outwardly imperturbable then Curzon was his emotional opposite and there were times when tension seeped, sometimes dramatically, into his playing. Yet at his greatest – and he was frequently at his greatest – his legacy is one of a pianist operating at the profoundest reaches of imagination and intensity. The record, for once, speaks for itself.

His Emperor with Szell (1949) preceded the perhaps better-known traversal with Knappertsbusch – certainly the later recording has been more widely available. But Curzon and Szell always produced strong results together, the conductor for ever exploring sinewy orchestral strands and responding to his soloist with immense understanding (whatever their serio-comic crypto-scowling relationship may have been). The conductor sculpts the opening paragraphs with unusual perception and encourages brassy tuttis; both musicians explore the dichotomy between the public and private in this concerto (not invariably the province of the Fourth) and employ a candid series of dynamics to reinforce the drama. As a performance the first movement is less obviously weighty than Schnabel’s but Curzon and Szell certainly explore detail with acute judgement. Elsewhere one can but appreciate the string veil of the slow movement and the clarity of the exploration of the melodic lines in the finale. As with Solomon’s two commercial recordings, Curzon’s Tchaikovsky B flat minor reading is musicality itself – no false heroics (none would be expected from him). The stress is on naturalness, integration, architectural assurance, poetry and rhythmic litheness.

The second disc contains Schubert - the Four Impromptus D935 and the D major Sonata D850 in this famous and indeed incomparable 1964 recording made in Vienna. The Impromptus retain a veil of surface noise but such as is rendered insignificant by Curzon’s sense of narrative and delicacy. The F minor contains multitudes in his hands whilst the A flat minor’s voicings are perfectly natural and full of unforced lyricism. The Sonata receives an astounding performance. The first movement has a rigorous (but not imposed) equipoise between inwardness and dramatic projection and the slow movement’s con moto indication is taken with acute and heartfelt judgement. The ardent legato is matched by a sense of space and chordal weight. How superb his rubati are in the Scherzo and how adept a wit he was – the humour and the subtlety being indissoluble. The impish generosity of his Rondo finale – at a delicately sedate tempo – crowns a Schubert recording for the ages.

The Franck-Falla-Litolff-Rawsthorne disc gives us much admired performances. The Franck is generously hued and his Litolff glints in the sun. The colouristic ambience and atmosphere of the de Falla are met with considerable verve and imagination. Whilst this is not necessarily a work some might associate with Curzon the fact remains that he recorded it twice; his earlier 1945 recording was again with Jorda. With the poetry there comes profound delicacy of expression and a sense of tonal exploration, and depth. He premiered Rawsthorne’s Second Concerto in 1951 and recorded it shortly afterwards with Malcolm Sargent and this performance now receives its inaugural CD transfer here. Of course there have been recordings of the Concerto since, in better sound, and recorded in the light and knowledge of the greater totality of Rawsthorne’s compositional output. But it is still astonishing how fluently and affectingly Curzon catches the poetry amidst the curve of its sparky insouciance and how adamantine he is when he drives through the Allegro molto second movement.

The final disc gives us two never before released Mozart Concertos with George Szell leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the Sofiensaal in 1964. K488 and K595 formed part of his stereo discography of course – and live performances have been issued and continue to be issued, which is a gift to posterity and partial, incomplete recompense for the complete cycle of Mozart Concertos that Curzon declined to make. Why weren’t they issued? I have to say it’s a mystery to me, though Curzon’s critical antennae quivered with an intense fear of imperfection and of the merciless glare of posterity. I found them both sublime experiences, the high point reached in the Adagio of the A major where Curzon and Szell explore the profoundly moving movement with ravishing introspection. There is a plethora of detail here, from the avuncular horns in the opening of the B flat major to the triumphant realisation of the passagework in its finale. These are, by any consideration, important and memorable additions to the corpus of Curzon’s work and any admirers should be encouraged to acquire the box on the strength of this single disc alone.

The transfers are fine – the Impromptus’ surface noise doubtless resulting from the (presumed) loss of the masters. Max Loppert’s notes are admiring and analytical in equal measure and thus thought provoking. The artistry contained in this box was hard won but undeniable. As I said times have seldom been better for admirers of this artist and this volume establishes itself, at a stroke, as a bedrock recommendation.

Jonathan Woolf

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