Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C major op.15 (1795) [39:37]
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major op.19 (1786-98) [28:44]
Felicja Blumental (piano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Robert Wagner
rec. dates and locations not given
BRANA BR0034 [68:48]
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 be told.
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 us.
Tempi sound spontaneously right, the phrasing natural and musical.
Masterwork Index: Concerto 1 • Concerto 2