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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Piano Concerto no.4 in G, op.58;
Piano Concerto no.5 in E flat, op.73 - "Emperor"

Clifford Curzon (pianoforte), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Decca 467 126-2 [72' 52"]

The somewhat plummy piano sound of the 1954 mono recording of the Fourth cannot dim the wonderful translucency of Curzon's passage work. Every note is a pearl, and every note sings. Add to this the most exquisite shading of the lyrical melodies and, in the relatively few moments where this concerto calls for it, considerable strength, and you have in Curzon the ideal pianist for the Fourth. The orchestral sound is a bit raw at times so you don't quite get the amalgamation that this concerto needs, and Knappertsbusch was notably unconcerned over minor matters of ensemble. He conducts with a good deal of character, however, and the booklet reveals that, after two days spent setting down the piece, the performers just played it straight through, more or less for fun, and then opted to use that version. This not only explains the spontaneity but makes the perfection of the pianism seem even more wonderful.

The "Emperor" is a stereo recording from 1957, sounding well for its age. Here Knappertsbusch directs the outer movements with a proud splendour that never becomes heavy and the sound of the strings at the beginning of the slow movement provides the best possible of reasons for recording with the VPO. Curzon adds to the qualities already heard some very full, powerful tone (the opening of the finale is most arresting), so this is a performance which, while perhaps savouring the lyrical moments more than some others, gives a very complete view of the work. Tempi are fairly broad and the finale is amiable rather than impetuous so those who want Beethoven with a furrowed brow may be disappointed. All others will put it on their shelves alongside other favourite versions.

Of the two, though, I would say it is the Fourth which is very special indeed. It was Curzon's only recording of the work, while the "Emperor" was the last of four. Might we have the chance to hear at least one of the others? And I hope BBC Legends are examining the archives thoroughly, for Curzon's repertoire was by no means as slender as his recorded legacy suggests.

Max Loppert's excellent note on the pianist might have found room for a word or two about Knappertsbusch.

Christopher Howell



(Fourth), (Emperor)

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