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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800) [35:08] ¹
Carl Maria Von WEBER (1786-1826)  
Konzertstück in F minor Op.79 (1821) [16:16] ²
Piano Sonata No.1 in C major Op.24 (1816) [21:13]
Claudio Arrau (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. Academy of Music, Philadelphia, December 1947 ¹
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Désiré Defauw
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, April 1946 ²
Weber sonata recorded Victor Studio 2, New York City, February 1941
NAXOS 8.111263 [72:37]


The C minor Concerto performance was given a bit of a roasting in The Record Guide. The contributors there briefly lambasted Ormandy’s “sentimentalised and vulgar” conducting before consigning the whole thing to the out tray of critical taste. Well times change but it’s hard to see quite what so annoyed the writers regarding Ormandy. Maybe it was the rather over grazioso string phrasing in the first movement, something that might then have smacked of Rachmaninovian excess to more puritan sensibilities. Or maybe it was the balance between piano and orchestra – not especially well judged – that skewed critical favour against the performance. However one views these things Arrau has considerable reserves of power, and in the finale demonstrates a rather striking balance of command and caprice when it comes to phraseology. In the slow movement there is perhaps too much of a patrician reserve. He avoids, if I can put it this way, quiescent chording – and I find some of the right hand runs strangely cursory. Not vulgar, just rather unthinking. So whilst I can’t concur with the adjectival chorus of disgust evinced by The Record Guide the performance as a whole strikes me as oddly unsatisfying and not properly thought-through. I will say that Mark Obert-Thorn has tamed the fierce treble  - the highs are still there and it’s still not altogether comfortable but there’s certainly a richer, mellower string tone now.

The Weber Konzertstück was recorded a year earlier than the Beethoven. The accompanist was Désiré Defauw whose performance here is usually written off. Defauw was a good musician – violinist and conductor – but he wasn’t helped by the recording which was very cloudy, a problem that Obert-Thorn has sought to address in his transfer, and by his own rather stolid approach.  Arrau always remembered a pre-War performance of the work given in Berlin by Schnabel – played beautifully he added – and it was a work Arrau kept in his repertoire until the end, by which time his work-list had shrunk to Thibaud-like parsimony. Arrau’s articulation has a bejewelled beauty to it, despite the limitations of the recording, and a ripe aplomb in the finale. The Sonata was Arrau’s first American studio recording. It was boxy, sounding rather like some of those pre-war Parisian ones, and pressed on inferior wartime shellac, but the playing is vital and communicative.

The transfers as noted seek to address inherent recording limitations in a variety of ways – stiffening the bass, cushioning boxy, unreverberant acoustics, trying to clarify muddied frequencies and ensuring pitch correction. It’s all been most sensitively done.

Jonathan Woolf 

see also Review by Colin Clarke



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