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Claudio Arrau: The Complete RCA Victor and Columbia Album Collection
Claudio Arrau (piano) with accompaniments as below
rec. 1941-52
SONY CLASSICAL 88843071652 [12 CDs: 10 hours]

In the avalanche of boxed sets come sub-sets of single-performer boxes that must cause even seasoned collectors headaches. Inevitably the corporates are issuing co-ordinated collections, such as this one, which releases the complete RCA Victor and Columbia discs made by Claudio Arrau. It joins the complete Beethoven Sonata recordings, the Icon set on EMI, the Decca Legacy, and smaller, perhaps more utilitarian things like the ‘Three Classic Album’ three-CD slipcase. Some of these are duplicatory. Not all will be necessary given that the material has been previously made available either on Sony or on reissue labels. That said, this is the first release of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K475. Ten of the CDs are newly remastered from the original analogue discs and tapes. The discs are housed in facsimile LP sleeves, with the exception of the 78rpm material which must make do in rather more simply designed housing.

The first three discs delve back to the earliest material in the box where one finds natural, unforced Mozart sonatas, with springy outer movements, which have seen the light on Naxos. The Fantasia preserves a bit of chuffing but in compensation its central movement is especially buoyant. It’s something of a mystery why it was never released at the time, unless there was a question mark about the recording quality. The selection of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias are reminders of a time when Bach was very much a part of Arrau’s repertory; so too is the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903 which only saw the light in 1988, along with the Goldberg Variations, which is contained in the last disc. In the second disc one finds Arrau dashing through Weber’s Sonata in C minor (see Naxos 8.111263 for alternative transfers) in unseemly haste. The two sets of Beethoven variations have both been reissued on Naxos (8.110603) and are also available in St Laurent’s ongoing Arrau reissue programme, which is well worth a look – as indeed is their whole catalogue.

The Schumann Piano Concerto sits in lonely isolation in disc three. It’s the Detroit Symphony recording of 1945 and is available on both the labels noted above. I’ve reviewed it in its Naxos incarnation. It can be safely ignored as it’s a dull, unsatisfying performance all round. The Strauss Burleske is on disc 4 and it was also transferred on Naxos 8.111265. It’s much inferior to Elly Ney’s earlier reading on 78s, recorded in 1932, and once on Biddulph. It’s coupled with Weber’s Konzertstück, with the Chicago and Defauw. The Galliera LP is the best-known Weber, where predictably he’s slower than in the more heated Defauw reading, though the live inscriptions with Szell in 1945 and Kleiber in 1947 are definitely worth hearing if you’re obsessive about the work.

Disc 5 is given over to his recording of both books of Iberia from 1946-47. This has done the rounds on Urania, Membran, Archipel, Dante and Arlecchino – the usual suspects, in other words – but it’s a necessary document for Arrau collectors as he left behind only this single recording, never returning to it for Philips. The deficiencies of colour inherent on 78s are immeasurably outbalanced by the idiomatic and technically commanding poise exhibited by the Chilean pianist.

Rather like Albéniz, Debussy is not the first composer to come to one’s mind when considering Arrau’s discography. But in 1949 he recorded Pour le piano, Estampes and both books of Images. They were issued on 78s and on LP. There is no subsequent studio recording of Pour le piano, which makes it a mandatory acquisition, though he did re-record the other sets for Philips many years later. Fortunately Pour le piano has already come out on United Archives and several other labels, but its presence here in the context of his other early Debussy readings is the more logical approach.

Beethoven occupies disc 7. The 1947 C minor Concerto with Ormandy is also on Naxos (8.111263) as well as Dante and it’s a powerfully expressive reading quite the equal of the later Galliera and Haitink directed recordings. The 1949 Waldstein differs quite considerably both in scale and amplitude from the 1956-57 EMI recording. It’s significantly faster, as is perhaps to be expected, but also less vertical in terms of sonority – and it’s not simply a function of the recording quality. Chopin’s Preludes occupy disc 8 recorded in 1950-51. An excellent alternative transfer is on Forgotten Records but Arlecchino and United Archives have got in there as well. His personalised rubati are perhaps more in evidence in this early reading than in the 1973 Concertgebouw remake. That later reading avoids all suggestions of suggestive intimacy but it shares a somewhat sober approach with this early take.

A live 1935 recording of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 has survived, with Rosbaud accompanying – a pretty stunning example of music on the wing – but this 1952 recording with Ormandy was recorded in a single take, it’s believed. And that’s impressive too. It’s far more combustible than the Colin Davis LSO disc of 1979. The Hungarian Fantasia was only recorded this one time, and it’s again with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. When an Arrau Retrospective LP set was issued, with its cover picture of him standing behind the piano staring at us, it contained a cornucopia of impressive things. There was Kreisleriana for a start. The recording may be dry but the playing is hot, the interior and extrovert nature of the writing perfectly suiting Arrau’s own sensibility. Then, on disc 11, there is a more hodgepodge approach with Chopin represented – a solid Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante – an unusually serious (yet convincing) Für Elise, an abridged Schubert Allegretto, D.915 and Gaspard de la nuit which is sadly minus Scarbo. The rest of the disc is given over to Arrau’s commanding and very special performance of five of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies. What a pity he didn’t record them all: what a set that would have been.

Finally, there is the Goldberg Variations alluded to earlier. This finally surfaced in 1988. Listening to it again after so many years Arrau expressed satisfaction with it, though he had largely wholly abandoned Bach by the late 1940s. He uses very little pedal, includes repeats (except the Aria da capo), plays with contrapuntal clarity and great concentration. It’s often alleged that this wasn’t released at the time in deference to Landowska’s harpsichord set on 78s but given that she took 46 minutes and Arrau 79, it’s very questionable how many sets would have sold – it was recorded in 1942 and wartime was no time to be releasing multi-volume 78 albums.

If you’ve missed some major repertory here, especially pieces to which Arrau didn’t return, this well transferred set with judiciously brief notes from Jed Distler, will prove attractive.

Jonathan Woolf

Full track-listing

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for Piano no 5 in G major, K 283 (189h) (1775) [14:40]
Sonata for Piano no 18 in D major, K 576 "Hunt" (1789) [14:24]
Fantasy for Piano in C minor, K 475 (1785) [12:27]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias (1723) no 8 in F major, BWV 779  [0:53]: no 6 in E major, BWV 792[0:58]: no 15 in B minor, BWV 801 [1:45]: no 2 in C minor, BWV 773 [1:40]: no 2 in C minor, BWV 788[1:56]: no 6 in E major, BWV 777 [3:12]
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 (1720) [11:03]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Sonata for Piano no 1 in C major, J 138/Op. 24 (1812) [20:43]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Variations (6) for Piano in F major on an Original Theme, Op. 34 (1802)
Variations (15) and Fugue for Piano in E flat major, Op. 35 "Eroica" (1802)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-45)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Karl Krueger
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, AV 85 (1885-86) [18:22] by Richard Strauss
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 79(1821) [15:53]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Desiré Defauw
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Iberia, Books 1 and 2 [36:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918).
Pour le piano, L. 95 [12:37]
Estampes (3) l.100 (1903) [11:29]
Images for Piano, Set 1 (1905) [14:49]
Images for Piano, Set 2 (1907) [15:00]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) [35:01]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sonata for Piano no 21 in C major, Op. 53 "Waldstein" (1804) [24:25]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Preludes (24) for Piano, Op. 28 (1836-39) [39:19]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Concerto for Piano no 1 in E flat major, S 124 (1849-56) [19:26]
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Melodies S.123 [16:04]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838) [32:37]
Arabeske in C major, Op.18 [4:31]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Andante spianato et Grand polonaise brillante in E flat major, Op. 22 (1830-31) [17:27]
Waltz for Piano in E flat major, B 62/Op. 18 "Grande valse brillante" (1831) [4:19]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bagatelle for Piano in A minor, WoO 59 "Für Elise" (1808) [3:25]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Allegretto for Piano in C minor, D 915; abridged recording (1827) [4:14]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit M.55; Scarbo is omitted; Ondine and Le Gibet only [12:59]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsodies (19) for Piano, S 244 (1846-85): no 8 in F sharp minor [6:20]: no 9 in E flat major [10:56]: no 10 in E major [5:32]: no 11 in A minor [6:38]: no 13 in A minor [9:03]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741-42) [78:50]



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