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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concertos -No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, 'Emperor' (1809) [43'29]; No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19 (1798) [31'14].
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim.
Rec. Kingsway Hall, London on March 10th-11th and April 9th-11th, 1975. ADD
RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876 65838-2 [74'45]


These Beethoven Concertos under Barenboim remain a valuable document of Arthur Rubinstein's twilight years; he died in 1982, having been born way back in 1887! These interpretations reveal playing of the utmost maturity, clearly the fruit of a lifetime's study. Yet in doing so they miss the spark of life that lies at the very heart of Beethoven.

Barenboim of course has himself long been associated with these works having been the pianist himself – with Klemperer – early in his career. He clearly knows the score inside out, for his accompaniments are utterly sympathetic to the Rubinstein cause, and the LPO play with great concentration and, indeed, affection. Of course Rubinstein recorded cycles prior to this (1956, Symphony of the Air/Krips and 1963-7, Boston Symphony/Leinsdorf).

The 'Emperor' is placed first, and all bodes well. The orchestral E flat major is positively resplendent, and Rubinstein's pedalling in his responding flourishes is marvellous. It is not long before a contrast arises, however - the orchestra in its long ritornello confident and outward-looking, Rubinstein on re-entry much more ponderous. It just sounds like this is an older person's interpretation ... contrast, perhaps, with Claudio Arrau and Colin Davis, another 'older person's' interpretation that is a thing of the highest wonder. Even the usually titanic interchanges between piano and orchestra (around 12:00) have more than a whiff of the Gentleman's Club (in the old sense) about them.

Contrast again in the second movement, where Barenboim shapes his warm-sounding forces very affectingly, as against Rubinstein's slight sense of remove. Indeed, Barenboim prepares and paces the semitonal slip to the transition to the finale (octave bassoons-horns) perfectly. One is holding one's breath already before Rubinstein plays the slowed-down finale theme. Rubinstein plays the preparation well, but surely he is too soft-edged when the finale properly begins. Rubinstein continues this trend, in fact, and is all too prone to reflection at the slightest opportunity. Certainly there is much to admire – pearly treble, and well-defined timpani in the famous duet with piano towards the very end.

The Second Concerto raises even more questions. This really is a young man's music, and right from the off the 'con brio' part of the tempo indication is called into question. One can admire the care that evidently went into the orchestra's exposition - while simultaneously wondering why the violins are so brightly recorded. Throughout one can marvel at Barenboim's careful, loving and always-attentive accompaniments. It is clear that both pianist and conductor are singing from the same hymn sheet. To possess Rubinstein's finger-strength would surely mean auctioning off part of most people's souls. And there is no faulting either the interpretative rigour here – the conception clearly covers the cadenza. Yet the cadenza is just where youthful excess is needed – this is where one shows off, after all, yet Rubinstein is slow, almost cumbersome. Here one admires the counterpoint of the opening, indeed the intellectual rigour of it all. A middle way, surely, is the answer.

Rubinstein is at his best in the rapt Adagio which, if it is un poco mosso, is very 'poco' indeed. Try him at around 3'45, where gorgeous right-hand projection and clarity is coupled with all voices in superb balance; no surprise that the LPO's woodwind is inspired to reply in kind. This is 9'28 of true chamber music, albeit on a large canvas. 

The finale raises questions of pay-offs. The downside is a slight sluggishness of tempo, the pay-off is that every note is clear, accents have real point to them. Details have more import, too, and as if to confirm this, Barenboim's hoiking-up of the dynamic level of the string accompaniment at 2'24ff - penny-plain on paper, a real support here - is a revelation. Repeated chords one hardly notices usually here add extra energy to the proceedings.

Interesting, then, if not mandatory.

Colin Clarke

 



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