In the fortnight before receiving this disk for review I attended
four concerts by the RPO under Nowak, at the Cadogan Hall,
where the RPO is in residence and
where this disk was recorded. These included four concertos by Mozart and the
final four Dvořák symphonies. They were excellent performances, with
superb playing and direction. Thus I was most pleased to find this disk in a
parcel on my doormat.
The final two piano concertos of Beethoven pose many problems both for conductor
and pianist. The Fourth appears to be lyrical and almost without incident, whilst
the Fifth is full of fire, passion and drama. But both include elements of the
other. The Fourth starts with the solo piano playing gently, giving the first
theme, which is immediately repeated by the orchestra. Thereafter an Allegro
moderato unfolds, over a large time-span, with music both gentle and spirited.
The drama, such as it is, comes from the musical conflict, not from the soloist
versus orchestra idea of a concerto. This performance tends towards the moderato rather
than the allegro, and also encompasses slower tempi for certain moments
of lyricism. To me, it feels slightly too slow, but at least it never becomes
ponderous. The slow movement is well nigh perfect, the balance between piano
and strings is very good, and Galeani’s responses to the urgency of the
orchestra are very well placed. The finale does however seem too glib, not too
fast but still it feels rushed, and there’s no real relaxation throughout
the movement. As a performance it failed to satisfy me for there was a sameness
almost throughout, with little variety of timbre and shading. And, perhaps, the
view of the music is too romantic. This isn’t Tchaikovsky, but Beethoven
in a state of change, moving from the classical to the young romantic.
The Fifth Concerto can stand a more romantic interpretation and it gets it. Both
Galeani and Nowak seem happier here for the music allows for a more expansive
view. However, there is some very obtrusive, and rather banal, use of rubato
from the soloist which instead of “robbing time”, as rubato is supposed
to do, makes for a momentary gap in the music. There is also too much heavy-handedness
in the octave passages, more colour is required here to raise the passages from
the ordinary to the virtuoso outbursts they are supposed to be. By the time we
reached the recapitulation of the first movement the recorded sound of the piano
was beginning to annoy me for it has been recorded far too closely, leaving the
orchestra rather recessed. The Cadogan Hall, one of London’s newest concert
halls, has a superb acoustic and I have heard the RPO there many times over the
last two or three years and I have never found the balance between piano and
orchestra to be anything but near perfect. There is a nice feel of the hall in
this recording but I do sense that, for some reason, the engineer has favoured
the soloist at the expense of the orchestra.
Ultimately, although there is some good playing here, I found these two performances
unsatisfying for they are unconvincing as both performances and interpretations.
For the Fourth Concerto I have had the most pleasure from the 1947 Clara Haskil
recording, with the London Philharmonic under Carlo Zecchi (London/Decca Historic
Series 425968, coupled with Schumann’s Concerto with Lipatti and the Suisse
Romande Orchestra under Ernest Ansermet) for it is full of poetry and deep love
for the music. This is an essential performance which should be on all CD shelves.
Alternatively Solomon on Testament (1220 - coupled with the Third Concerto with
the Philharmonia under Cluytens) offers an aristocratic performance. If you prefer
a more modern recording, which I can understand, I find John Lill and Julius
Katchen very reliable, in very good 1960s and 1970s sound. For the Fifth Concerto,
Solomon again (Testament SBT 1221 with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges,
coupled with two Mozart sonatas) for his unerring intelligence, and, again, Lill
and Katchen. For me, these older performances seem more rounded and complete
than many which have been committed to CD in the past twenty years. There are
many who will disagree and, in the end, the performance you choose must be your
choice and satisfy your musical taste. All a critic can do is help point the
way, to misquote Wilfred Owen!