Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 [19:04]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37 [33:40]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Orchestra Sinfonica de Roma della RAI/Ferruccio Scalia (op. 19)
Orchestra “Alessandro Scarlatti” di Napoli della RAI/Franco Caracciolo (op. 37)
rec. live, Rome, June, 1958 (op. 19); Naples, June 1958 (op. 37). ADD
IDIS 6597 [62:05]

As a young aspiring pianist growing up in the 1970s, Rudolf Serkin, along with Artur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn were my heroes. In my eyes Serkin could do no wrong. I loved the breakneck speeds at which he could so cleanly play virtuoso passages and I adored the loving way that he shaped the phrases of Schubert and Schumann. That he rarely delved into composers such as Liszt, Chopin and Debussy always perplexed me. Fortunately he left behind quite a trove of recordings of the more classically oriented music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and contributed greatly to the world of chamber music through his leadership of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont.

Now with some reflection, I find some of the tempi that he took a little breathless and his readings occasionally utilitarian. My views on his playing have been molded by thirty years more experience as a musician and a much broader access to the recordings of many other fine pianists since my days when the only available source of records (yes, the vinyl variety) was the local public library and what they could order from the old Columbia House and RCA record clubs.

These re-mastered live performances from 1958 are impressive enough, although the sound is a bit boxy and there is little reverberation from the hall captured here. What is remarkable however is the fine, taut playing by the two Italian orchestras. Ferruccio Scaglia captures the spunky spirit of the second concerto without sacrificing clarity or forward drive. Although it is a bit difficult in these recordings to hear what the bloom of the strings might have been like in a concert hall, we still get the idea that Maestro Scaglia was in control of his forces and that they were a well trained and disciplined band. I am not so in love with Serkin in the slow movement as I am in the more virtuoso outer movements. It seems like a bit of love is lacking in the almost aria-like melodies, melodies that remind us of some of Mozart’s most touching operatic moments.

The third concerto is considerably grander in scope, having come along some eleven years or so after the B-flat major work. (It should be noted that Op. 19, now known as number two, was actually completed before the C major concerto, now called No. 1). Cast in Beethoven’s favorite key of c minor, it is much broader in its formal and harmonic reach than the two, more classically oriented, earlier concertos.

Here Serkin takes full control, turning in a commanding and strong-handed performance. In the gorgeous slow movement, Serkin seems to find more of his tender side, bringing out all of the nuances built into this achingly lyrical music. In true Serkin fashion, he tears up the rondo, never failing to make every last sixteenth note have a meaning all its own. The Naples orchestra accompanies with panache in a very clean performance.

This is one for fans and collectors of Serkinalia. Despite the well crafted performances, the sound quality is not up to a par that would merit repeated listening. Program notes and any history of the events are non-existent; a cheap and annoying tendency in the Italian recording industry.

Kevin Sutton

Skilfully played and even more skilfully accompanied, these recordings will be of interest to collectors. Sound quality is the main drawback in what is otherwise a fine release.