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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major K.449 [22:30]*
March in D major K.335
Six German dances K.571
Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major K.467 [29:44]*
Rudolf Serkin (piano)*
English Chamber Orchestra/Alexander Schneider
rec. live 28 August 1964, Usher Hall, Edinburgh (Kk.449, 335, 571), 23 July 1966, Guildhall, London (K.467)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42272 [67:51]


Rudolf Serkin’s CBS recording of K.449 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Schneider was well-regarded in the 1960s. Slightly surprisingly, I find no evidence that he set down K.467 before the somewhat disappointing DG version with the LSO under Abbado, a late offering that found him past his best. Or perhaps it is not so surprising, since CBS listed a performance by Robert Casadesus with the Columbia SO under Szell, and companies didn’t duplicate repertoire like wildfire in those days. Under the circumstances, it is fortunate that K.467 makes by far the more sympathetic impression here, chiefly on account of the recording.

European listeners used to complain enough about the over-bright, close-up sound favoured by CBS at that period. These Edinburgh recordings are closer still, with a microphone apparently placed near Serkin’s foot, which bangs the pedal or the floor loudly whenever he gets excited. A gentle if unmelodious vocal accompaniment is to be heard even in some of his studio recordings; here he snorts and grunts through his favourite bits. It is all very vital and upfront but surely too aggressive for Mozart. Much the same may be said of the orchestra, with vicious accents, strings fit for Rachmaninov and thunderous bass-lines. Out on his own in the March and the Dances, Schneider creates a similarly gutsy but over-the-top impression.

Probably it all fell into perspective back in the hall. The recording of K.467 suggests as much. This appears to be mono only, with a touch of distortion and some background, but with a proper concert hall perspective. Treat it as a typical off-the-air recording and you won’t be disappointed. A note actually says that “The assistance of Richard Landau is gratefully acknowledged (K.467)”, which I suppose means that the BBC tapes were long ago wiped clean and Mr. Landau volunteered his home-made copy. Indeed, I can reveal that “BBC Legends” doesn’t mean at all what it sounds as if it means. The phrase is a close cousin of “Metropolitan Legends”. Just as these latter include albino alligators, Men in Black, escaped dinosaurs and other pleasant objects which are said to exist but can’t be produced, “BBC Legends” are recordings that were made and broadcast but only exist if some public-spirited home-taper has a copy in his attic.

Well, fortunately this one exists. Heard at a proper distance the orchestra is vital and full-toned but also refined and stylish. Serkin occasionally dawdles or runs ahead, mostly in the earlier stages of the first movement. But in general this is a performance high in disciplined energy with a majestic first movement, a gentle, song-like Andante and a sizzling finale. The later DG recording is of course technically superior and Abbado conducts with much refinement, but Serkin admirers will probably regard the Guildhall performance as the representative version from now on.

Incidentally, the track details inform us that the German Dances are played in an “arrangement for piano and orchestra”. An intriguing prospect, but not a note from the piano is to be heard from beginning to end. Maybe Serkin amused himself shaking the tambourine in the “Turkish” last dance. All the same, it will be interesting to see if any critics, on the strength of the track details, will wax lyrical about Serkin’s “contribution”.

Christopher Howell 




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