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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (1800) [33:51]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58* (1805) [32:23]
Leon Fleisher (piano)
The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
rec. Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 14 April 1961; *10 January 1959 DSD


The American pianist, Leon Fleisher (b. 1928) was talented enough to become a pupil of Artur Schnabel when aged only nine. In 1952 he became the first American to win the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition in Belgium. His early career was illustrious and promised even more. Then in 1965 he suffered debilitating problems with his right hand, later diagnosed, as Repetitive Strain Injury, and it seemed his career was over. He devoted himself to teaching and some conducting but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he began to play in public again, confining himself to the repertoire for the left hand. The story has a happy ending, however, for in 1995 he resumed playing standard two-hand repertoire, though he has been a bit selective in his choice of repertoire, which is quite understandable. His first two-handed recording for many years, including Schubert’s Piano Sonata D960, was released not long ago and was well received, not least by my colleague, Colin Clarke (see review).

This present and very welcome reissue takes us back to the days when his career was at its peak and recalls his collaboration with George Szell. Together they set down a complete Beethoven concerto cycle in Cleveland of which these two recordings were a part. Szell was certainly a robust interpreter of Beethoven though in my experience of his Beethoven recordings “robust” is not a word I’d use pejoratively. Here he and Fleisher combine to very good effect.

Szell directs a strong, purposeful account of the substantial introduction to the third Concerto, presaging serious argument to come. Fleisher’s first phrase is impressive though I’d have preferred a little more hush in the answering second phrase. Thereafter he and Szell unfold the movement in a forthright but far from insensitive fashion. There’s plenty of spirit and strength in this performance but one should admire also the fluency of Fleisher’s playing. Also much to be admired is the sheer amplitude and attack of the Cleveland Orchestra, clearly well drilled by Szell. Fleisher’s superb technique is on display in Beethoven’s cadenza, which is powerfully delivered. In the notes we read that “…the purpose of the movement [is] not that of displaying virtuosity, but of shaping musical drama.” That’s just how Fleisher and Szell seem to view things.

Fleisher displays appropriate sensitivity in the ruminative opening measures of the second movement and when the orchestra enters it lends sonorous support. This is a fine account of the movement where my only reservation would be to wonder if the orchestra should, perhaps, have played a bit more quietly at times. The rondo finale is spirited and lively. The annotator, Klaus George Roy, describes the finale of the Fourth concerto as “music of wit rather than humor”. I wouldn’t disagree but I’d say that description could serve equally for the finale of the Third concerto. This present account is well sprung and enjoyable and the Mozartian flavour of the puckish coda comes across well.

The Fourth concerto is an Olympian work and once again soloist and conductor seem to take a serious, even weighty, view. I wondered if the tempo for the first movement was perhaps just a touch too stately but that’s of a piece with the artists’ view of the music. The Cleveland Orchestra once again display splendid precision and strength. I admired the fine unfolding of the musical argument in this movement and the excellence of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra – what a fine accompanist Szell could be! There’s an admirable balance between lyricism and strength. Fleisher is commanding in the cadenza. On my copy there was a tiny and momentary ‘blip’ in the sound at 17:29, which may be a flaw on the original tape but this is the most minor of blemishes and does not detract from one’s enjoyment of a magisterial account of this movement.

The strength and sonority of the Cleveland strings are heard to great advantage in the slow movement. This short movement is such an original conception and Fleisher, at first pitted against the orchestra and then calmly asserting command of it, offers playing that is dignified and stoical. The whole movement is excellent but the closing bars in particular are splendidly poised. The finale is sinewy and athletic in this performance. It’s played with great vigour and admirable zest by all concerned. The last couple of pages are a terrific ‘dash for home’ that Fleisher and Szell make stirring and exciting.

Both recordings have been well transferred by BMG/Sony. The booklet reproduces the useful sleeve-notes from the original LP releases that, in turn, are taken from Cleveland Orchestra programme notes.

In the Beethoven concertos one can always say “Ah yes. But I prefer X in Number 2 and Y brings something special to the slow movement of Number 5”. I myself have established favourites in both of the concertos under consideration here – Solomon in either or Gilels in Number 4. But on this occasion I think we should put aside comparisons and just be glad that these very fine performances by Fleisher and Szell are once again available. I’m delighted to have encountered them for the first time and I know I’ll return to both in the future simply for pleasure. I hope BMG/Sony will go on to reissue the remainder of the cycle.

John Quinn 


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