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Recordings of the Month

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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 [28:17]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G major Op. 58 [29:51]
Guiomar Novaes (piano)
New York Philharmonic/George Szell
rec. New York, 7 January 1951 (Chopin); 21 December 1952 (Beethoven)
ARCHIPEL ARPCD0558 [58:14] 

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, South America produced two giants of the keyboard. Claudio Arrau hailed from Chile and was born in 1903. The pianist featured in the recordings here, Guiomar Novaes, was a native of Brazil, and was born eight years earlier in 1895. She had lessons as a child with Luigi Chiaffarelli, a Busoni pupil, and later with Isidore Philipp at the Paris Conservatoire, where she graduated with First Prize in 1911.
 
Embarking on a concert career, she travelled Europe, but this was curtailed by the outbreak of World War I. She then returned to her native country. For fifty-seven years she made annual trips to the States. The two performances here were given in New York in the early ’Fifties. Apart from dates, Archipel supply no further details. Having done some digging around elsewhere, I have identified that these are live performances from Carnegie Hall.
 
Chopin is a composer that Novaes was closely identified with. The qualities that she brings to his music are poetry, seamless legato, spontaneity and freedom of expression. The first thing that strikes you when listening to the Chopin Concerto here is the poor sound quality. Indeed it seems as though the microphones were placed in a room adjoining the main auditorium. The piano and orchestra sound distant. This results in lack of definition and clarity in some of the louder passages. Things are also marred by a certain amount of audience participation of the bronchial kind. Szell, who was renowned for his rhythmic incisiveness and control of instrumental balance, is too hard-driven for my liking in the first movement. He doesn’t inspire Novaes, who delivers a fairly lacklustre performance.
 
The Beethoven Concerto fares somewhat better, but again microphone placement renders the what we hear distant and recessed but marginally less so than the Chopin. Szell this time encourages the pianist to give a more convincing performance. Penetrating the harsh sonics, one can discern the subtle nuances, long lines and tonal colour that characterize her playing.
 
Those wanting to hear Novaes in these two concertos would do far better in acquiring the Vox Legends 2 CD set (CDX2 5501) in which she is partnered by Klemperer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. At the time of writing this wonderful set is still available. These two recordings from the fifties have lost none of their potency over the years. Here are two artists with a sense of shared purpose, delivering beautifully managed performances.
 
Archipel supply tracklistings but provide no notes. This is not a disc I would want to return to. Disappointing.
 
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Beethoven concerto 4