Brana Records is run by the soprano Annette Celine and is dedicated
primarily to remembering the art of the singer’s mother,
the Polish pianist Felicja Blumental (1908-1991). Given this
premise, I find their presentation policy quite strange. No
recording dates or venues are given. We get some rather good
notes on the music by M. Ross, but would the sort of classical
music neophyte who needs this information be likely to buy in
the semi-historical bracket? While the seasoned collector exploring
the byways of the early stereo catalogue will probably skip
the notes in the hope of finding something about the recordings
themselves, memories of the sessions, Blumental’s rapport
with the conductor and so on. We just get a skimpy biography
of the pianist, apparently written when she was still alive,
a photo of her and - not quite relevantly for this particular
disc - the reproduction of an autographed handbill of a concert
by the Pasdeloup Orchestra of Paris at which Blumental played
the Third Concerto under the direction of Heinrich Hollreiser.
Surfing around, in MusicWeb International and elsewhere, I find
that these are part of a complete cycle of the Beethoven concertos
set down in Innsbruck between 1962 and 1967. The orchestra was
originally named as the Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra.
Readers who cut their musical teeth in the 1960s and early 1970s
will remember quite a number of Vox/Turnabout issues by the
Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra under Robert Wagner. A Google search
gives no results for this band except for reissues of those
recordings. You’d have expected to find details of their
current season, maybe an official site with a history and a
list of past conductors. It crosses my mind that Innsbruck may
never have had a symphony orchestra at all, the whole series
having been set down by the VSO out of contract and the name
suggested by a conveniently-available recording venue in Innsbruck.
Come to think of it, evidence for a Robert Wagner outside these
recordings is scarce too. Two present-day conductors state in
their curricula that they studied choral conducting with Robert
Wagner and a “Robert Wagner, choral conductor (1914-1992)”
received some kind of Papal award in 1966. However, these same
dates also fit the legendary French-American choral conductor
Roger Wagner, a vital force on the American scene for many years.
The suspicion is that the posters muddled his forename with
that of the equally legendary American choral conductor Robert
Shaw. So “Robert Wagner” is a doubtful figure. Maybe
the Hollreiser handbill hints at something that still cannot
Still, the main thing is the performances.
My first reflection is that they come from an age when the language
of Beethoven interpretation had not yet been held up to question,
whether by originals, by the historically informed or by the
plain perverse. Without especial point-making, pianist and conductor
show an easy familiarity with music that has not lost its freshness
by repetition. In the Second Concerto in particular, tempi sound
spontaneously right, the phrasing natural and musical. The performers’
apparent conviction that this is how the music has to go communicates
itself to the listener. After it has finished you may wonder
if you have heard the whole story, but the story as far it goes
is entirely satisfying.
My second reflection is that this sort of naturalness isn’t
so easy to achieve as it sounds. Still in the semi-historical
bracket, I turned to the classic Serkin/Ormandy version of no.
2 and in the ritornello of the first movement I found Ormandy
“Toscaninifying” the music excessively. He actually
manages some beautiful phrasing within the brisk tempo, but
I was nevertheless left a bit breathless. The expression is
there, but strait-jacketed. I also tried the equally classic
Kempff/Van Kempen - again in no.2 - and here I found the orchestral
introduction plodding in several places. Wagner’s middle
way seemed absolutely spot-on.
So far I’m talking about the conductors and it’s
less simple when the pianists enter. The brisk tempo sounds
perfectly natural under Serkin’s fingers because he breathes
in the tempo while Ormandy just presses on. Conversely Kempff,
with his characteristically luminous tone, uses his slower tempo
to phrase the music subtly, so it doesn’t hang fire. Both
pianists provide a lesson in the fact that the tempo will sound
right if it’s a natural consequence of the phrasing. While
their conductors show that a tempo will sound wrong if the phrasing
is squeezed into it or not made to flower within the space provided.
This still leaves Blumental/Wagner as the most integrated experience
of the three because for everybody concerned tempo and expression
seem at one.
In the slow movement of no.2 both Kempff and - especially -
Serkin seem concerned to provide a religioso experience.
Since they are very great artists they can bring it off, but
I wonder if this early concerto should really be made to bear
so much. Blumental/Wagner let it flow more - again, “natural”
is the inescapable word. On the other hand, you might feel that,
compared with the other pianists’ inwardness, Blumental,
at least as recorded, is a little too full-toned and extrovert.
The finale evokes similar comparisons to the first movement
so altogether this is a very successful, and highly enjoyable,
version of the second concerto.
No.1 seems to me a notch less successful. However, I made the
initial mistake of listening to it on headphones. I found the
sound overpowering and boomy and the performance sometimes over-emphatic.
After hearing no.2 on loudspeakers and reacting as above, I
listened to no.1 again on loudspeakers too. The sound, as absorbed
into my room acoustic, was much more pleasing and the performance
impressed me more favourably. However, the grander character
of this music - which was actually written after no.2 - perhaps
encourages an excessively maestoso approach.
I compared with Serkin and Kempff here, too, not with their
commercial recordings, but with live performances which both
of them gave during the 1960s in Naples with the local RAI orchestra.
The former was once on a Cetra LP so some readers may know it.
They both sound freer live and this time the comparisons seemed
to go in their favour. But Blumental and Wagner are again impressively
unified in their view and if you like a majestic reading of
this concerto - finale included - this may be the one for you.
It’s difficult to know what sort of recommendation to
give, given that the sound is full and pleasant but dimensionally
and tonally limited. Readers finding their way into classical
music will presumably relate better to a modern icon like Argerich/Abbado
in no.2 on DG, or else to something more philologically informed.
The historically curious may be assured that the recording quality
does not inhibit enjoyment. The performance of no.2, in particular,
may cause us to wonder whether the gap between the “acknowledged
greats” - such as Kempff and Serkin - and those such as
Blumental who, according to received opinion, didn’t quite
make it and so are now barely remembered at all, is as yawning
as we imagine. For this, at least, the disc has much to teach
Masterwork Index: Concerto
1 • Concerto