Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concertos No . 1 in C, Op. 15a (1797) [31:16]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, ‘Emperor’ (1809)b [36:20]
Walter Gieseking (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík (a)
Berlin Radio Orchestra/Artur Rother (b)
rec. from Columbia LX1230/2, CAX10333/40. a EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 13 October 1948 and b Saal No. 1, Haus des Rundfunks (Reichsender Berlin), 23 January 1945. ADD
MUSIC & ARTS CD1145 [67:38]

Gieseking never recorded a cycle of the Beethoven Concertos, principally because – and it’s strange to consider this lacuna especially with regard to the C minor – he never took the Second and Third Concertos into his repertory. Clearly he must have had reservations, and it would be instructive to know what they may have been.

Nevertheless he did record the First, firstly in 1937 with Hans Rosbaud and again eleven years later in London. This was a strange affair. The Record Guide of 1951 admired the performance but lambasted the release for concealing the conductor’s name on the labels; ‘the name of the conductor is reprehensibly omitted’, it thundered, not unreasonably given that the name thus concealed was that of Rafael Kubelik. However there were contractual reasons why the flag was not flying, and whilst it was a regrettable step, it was necessary. Kubelik, needless to add, directs with tremendous power and authority. This 78 set reveals Gieseking’s refinement and precision in this repertoire. Exchanges with orchestral principals are appropriately scaled, and the ethos is one of watchful delicacy, and an avoidance of tone-forcing and grandiloquence. Appropriately, therefore, he plays the shortest of the first movement cadenzas. The slow movement is well-textured, selflessly warm, and well-balanced both internally and in terms of the balance between piano and accompanying figures. The finale witnesses lissom high spirits, but there’s real delicacy and phrasing too and it makes for a thoroughly successful reading, with side joins seamlessly attended to in this transfer.

The companion concerto is the Fifth, recorded ‘in stereo’ in Berlin in January 1945. This has previously been released by Music & Arts on CD637 (1990) and CD815 (1994) and so this is its third release on the label, this time transferred by Aaron Z. Snyder, who has very well mitigated the relatively high level of background noise and hiss. This live broadcast is tagged as ‘the only complete recording of a classical work in stereo from WW2’. Certainly the Magnetophon recording is startling in many ways but it’s not the kind of stereo that one might anticipate. As a document, though, it’s valuable indeed and of historical interest. Fortunately it’s also of distinct musical interest. Gieseking recorded this work commercially first in 1934 in Vienna with Bruno Walter and again in 1951 with Karajan, and then finally in 1955 with Alceo Galliera.

I like this performance. It’s powerful without exuding undue panache, and one can feel Gieseking really drive into the musical argument after the first movement cadenza. Perhaps he heard, as we most distinctly can – try from around 16:55 - the Berlin anti-aircraft batteries opening up on Allied daylight attackers. The slow movement is commensurately measured, refined (again!) and just occasionally a touch heavy, though I don’t find it unduly so. The finale is powerful but not Herculean, with phrases tapered intelligently and the whole music-making displaying a sure grip. Artur Rother, like Kubelik, is a most attentive, and impressive accompanist; he wasn’t always so accommodating, but he is truly on the ball here.

This is certainly the best yet restoration of the stereo Emperor, and its disc mate makes an appropriate and equally distinguished pairing.

Jonathan Woolf

This is certainly the best yet restoration of the stereo Emperor, and its disc mate makes an appropriate and equally distinguished pairing.