Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (1805/6) [32:56]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op. 73, Emperor (1809) [39:02]
Emil Gilels (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 26-27, 30 April, 1 May 1957. ADD
REGIS RRC1367 [72:09]

These famous performances have been reissued a number of times; I last saw them on EMI Classics’ ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ label [4768282]. The reason is not hard to seek, given the august nature of the music-making and the excellent collaboration between soloist and conductor. Even those who swear by Gilels’ cycle in Cleveland with Szell might acknowledge the cardinal virtues of these 1957 Philharmonia recordings and in some important ways their relative superiority.

The G major opens gently, reflectively and with an unusually withdrawn deference. But the playing is nevertheless hugely commanding and warm, and Gilels’ negotiation of the runs effortless sounding, his control of the first movement cadenza a triumph of sonorous reserves of power. The consolatory, conciliatory slow movement shows the pianist’s unforced nobility, his gravity and his tonal gradations, whilst in the finale one senses that elegance and rhythmic brio are held in the finest of balances. There’s real ebullience here, and technical sang froid. Ludwig’s control is absolute too.

The Emperor is no less impressive, which means it receives one of the most leonine and admirable performances one can imagine. Gilels’ patrician command, full of arresting but wholly musical touches, meets Leopold Ludwig’s unusually generous encouragement of warmly nuanced string cushioning in the slow movement. The poetry of Gilels’ phrasing is ravishing but never sickly, or indulged, though the slight tension-prolonging at the end of the slow movement might provoke some listeners. Fortunately it leads to a strong, powerful, agile finale.

The notes are wholly concerned with the music, not the musicians, but this Regis series seems predicated on those lines anyway, or maybe assumes collectors know this sort of thing; no recording dates are given, for instance, which I hope won’t mislead newcomers. In any case seasoned listeners and neophytes alike should know that this is an Alpha coupling.

Jonathan Woolf

An Alpha coupling.