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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concertos: No . 1 in C, Op. 15a () [31:16]; No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, ‘Emperor’b [36:20]
Walter Gieseking (piano); aPhilharmonia Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík; bBerlin Radio Orchestra/Artur Rother.
aFrom Columbia LX1230/2, CAX10333/40. Rec. aEMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, on October 13th, 1948 and bSaal No. 1, Haus des Rundfunks (Reichsender Berlin), on January 23rd, 1945. ADD
MUSIC & ARTS CD1145 [67’38].

As Farhan Malik in his booklet notes points out, Gieseking was one of the first pianists to record Beethoven’s First Concerto, predated only by Kempff (1925) and Schnabel (1932). Gieseking’s first essay dated from April 1937 and was with the Berlin State Opera House Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud. The present Music & Arts release features his second traversal of the First Concerto

Listeners may be taken aback by the level of the opening. Kubelík extracts a true pianissimo from his orchestra, which proceeds to give a dynamic account of the orchestral exposition; lithe yet full of Beethovenian intent. Contrasts are well-drawn, the lyrical theme nevertheless retaining its rhythmic impetus.

Gieseking, though, is the real surprise. Known more for his Debussy and Ravel, his Beethoven reveals a pianist of immense finger-strength which is needed in spades in this piece. He shows full awareness aware of the subtleties of Beethoven’s voicing. The interaction between piano and orchestra is expertly judged. There is a real chamber-music quality to many of the exchanges. Gieseking plays the second, and shortest, of the composer’s own cadenzas for the first movement with the lightest of touches, a fair amount of wit, some Sturm und Drang, and with complete mastery.

If the Largo may be felt to be on the brisk side, Gieseking brings to it a superb sense of cantabile; his clarinet accomplice in this movement tries, and nearly succeeds in, matching Gieseking’s subtlety. The finale is gentle and sedate. There are many more dynamic than this. Kubelík, indeed, seems intent on injecting some drama around the 6’50-7’00 mark, pointedly underlining the timpani roll. A thought-provoking reading with many moments of inspiration.

The ‘Emperor’ is, according to Music & Arts, the only complete recording of a classical work in stereo surviving from World War II. This performance has previously been available on Music & Arts 637 and 815. Previous to the present recording, Gieseking recorded the work in 1934 with the VPO under Bruno Walter, a version only predated by Lamond in 1922, Backhaus in 1927 and Schnabel in 1932. Later, Gieseking was to record the ‘Emperor’ with Karajan (1951) and Galliera (1955). There remains a live New York account with Cantelli at the helm from 1956.

The orchestra at the outset reveals some distortion/edge to the sound, yet within itself it is resplendent. Gieseking’s initial flourishes are superb, leading to an interpretation that is supremely thought-through. He refuses the temptation to slow down around 5’49 (so many pianists do!), preferring to let his long-range thought carry him through. And it works. By the end, one is aware of having been on a long journey, a journey that requires and gets the calm stasis of the sow movement. Gieseking at times lets notes drop like pearls, and throughout plays with the utmost innigkeit.

All the more of a shame that the finale is on the dour side. It strikes me that it is deliberately undynamic, but it also strikes me that this is contra the music’s inner nature. Never exultant, this finale leaves an impression one would never have guessed from the first two movements.

Nevertheless the disc demands a hearing, and there is much to fascinate.

Colin Clarke

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