Admirers of the excellent Artur Balsam have long been aware of
the many concerto recordings he made for Concert Hall Society
in the early 1950s. The wider world will however remember him
best for his collaborations with elite string players, either
as sonata partner - Milstein and Francescatti among them - or
as chamber collaborator of the Budapest Quartet, a number of whose
live performances have been published by Bridge itself.
Sixteen Balsam concerto performances were recorded by Concert
Hall, eight of which were Mozart concerti. Here we have two early
Mozarts, a C P E Bach, the Hummel A minor, and the 1807 arrangement
for piano of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Balsam plays Mozart’s C major Concerto K246 with deftness of phrasing
truly pleasurable to hear. Those qualities that made him so esteemed
a chamber collaborator held him in good stead for the exchanges
with section principals and for the selfless realisation of the
solo part – not for nothing was Balsam known for his studying
of full scores of the works he played, not just his own part.
The noble visits to the minor in the first movement have suitable
gravity and those little pre-figurings of Hummel are saliently
brought forth. He is no less impressive in the companion concerto
in the same key, K415. Buoyant and affectionate this performance
reinforces his suitability for this kind of repertoire. Swoboda
encourages some very rich and romantic string phrasing in the
slow movement and together he and Balsam conjure an introspective
feel to the finale, laden with significance, and highly effective.
Hummel’s A minor Concerto, as with all these works, was rare on
disc at the time. Our increased familiarity with repertoire such
as this shouldn’t divert us from appreciation of these pioneering
recordings. That in itself is not necessarily reason enough to
recommend this two CD set – but happily performances such as this
have a sparkle and an élan that still makes them of interest.
It was also something of a favourite with Balsam. He certainly
catches the distinctly vocalised curve of the writing, characterising
its intermittently martial moments and pellucid lyricism with
equal aplomb. Phrasing is of patrician elevation, with the quasi-operatic
moments of the finale despatched with fluidity and the more knotty
passagework easily surmounted.
C.P.E. Bach’s Concerto features a harpsichord and a rousingly
large band. Important as a catalystic figure his D minor concerto
is especially effective in its setting up of orchestral weight
and solo limpidity in the slow movement. The finale has intimations
of Mozart – very fluent and clever writing and for most people
in the early 1950s a complete novelty on disc. Beethoven’s Concerto
was a discographic first – at least I’m not aware of an earlier
recording of this reworking. Incidentally Balsam substituted
on this recording for another pianist on two days’ notice. Not
only that but he rewrote the cadenzas. His singing tone and commanding
control of the rhetoric of the cadenzas – extensive and timpani-accompanied
in the opening movement - are reminders of his notable musicianship.
The finale has great lift and aeration, splendid drive and surety;
those trills are infectious, the pianistic curlicues of elegant
Transferred from LP we do find some problems. The original sound
was somewhat muddy and occluded. But Bridge’s transfers do also
preserve LP rumble, which you will clearly hear in the Mozart
C major, K. 246. One will have to accept Concert Hall’s 1950s
instrumental spotlighting and in the Beethoven some signal overload
but to me some of Bridge’s restoration work could and should have
dealt with the rumble. Other than that however we have a successful
entrant into the field – first class notes as well.
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