One of the most
invaluable features of the BBC Legends series is that it often
allows us to hear live performances by artists in repertoire
that they did not record commercially. This is the case in
one, and possibly two of the items included on this disc.
Sir Clifford Curzon
(1907-1982) was not only a very great pianist but also a famously
fastidious one. I vividly recall a performance by him of the
Brahms D minor concerto with James Loughran and the Hallé
Orchestra in Bradford nearly thirty years ago when he stopped
the performance not long after his opening entry in the first
movement because there was a fault with the action of one
of the piano keys. His tremendously self-critical nature and
increasing reluctance to preserve a performance through recording
lest fallibilities be exposed meant that his discography is
frustratingly small for an artist of his stature. I’m not
aware that he recorded either the Delius concerto or the Beethoven
Fantasia commercially, which makes this release so
valuable to his admirers.
The Mozart concerto
is in his discography. He made a justly celebrated
recording of it for Decca in 1968 with the LSO and Kertész.
The present live performance with Haitink is also a fine one.
It’s suitably, but not excessively, muscular in the opening
movement. Right from the start Haitink presents a strongly
profiled account of the orchestral introduction and here,
as will be the case throughout the reading, there’s some excellent
playing from the LPO woodwind. In the hands of Curzon and
Haitink the music seems to unfold seamlessly and inevitably.
Curzon turns every phrase beautifully. He manages to make
everything sound spontaneous but you know that, in fact, everything
he does has been very carefully considered. This is one of
Mozart’s darkest concerto movements and Curzon gives a performance
that is powerful but in which the power is never overdone
and is not at the expense of style. In all this he’s helped
enormously by having such a committed and supportive accompanist
and poise in the slow movement. Again, besides Curzon’s marvellously
stylish and thoughtful pianism, there are some fine contributions
from the woodwind section of the LPO. The finale is nicely
pointed and features incisive playing from Curzon. I must
admit that I’ve heard more playful accounts of the compound
time final pages but Curzon’s serious-sounding approach here
is not a drawback. In summary this is a fine, authoritative
reading of the concerto and it’s a valuable supplement to
Curzon’s studio account.
Fantasia is a curious, hybrid work. It contains elements
of concerto style and also, at the end, sounds like a small
dry run for the finale of the Ninth symphony. Composed in
1808 it comes between the Fourth and Fifth Piano concertos
and is contemporaneous with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
It was first heard at a concert in Vienna in December 1808.
On that occasion the audience heard also the premières of
those two symphonies and, for good measure, the aria Ah,
perfido as well as movements from the Mass in C major.
What a marathon!
In brief, the
work opens with a lengthy piano cadenza, which lasts until
3:36 in this performance. Curzon is commanding here. Then
the orchestra joins in, the main theme of the movement is
announced and soloist and orchestra play a series of variations
on it. It is not until near the end that the chorus makes
their contribution (15:46 here). The performance is decent
enough though I’m not convinced that Haitink is on such fine
form as was the case in the Mozart – but then the Mozart is
a much greater work. The vocal contribution is adequate –
one is conscious how much choral standards have risen in just
the last three decades or so. At the start of the choral section
Beethoven calls for a quartet of soloists. Usually in performances
I’ve heard or taken part in this section is sung by a semi-chorus
of say two to a part. The ensemble sounds a little bigger
than that here – perhaps four to a part?
The trouble with
this performance is the sound quality. I don’t know what is
the source of the recording but I’m sorry to say the sound
is some of the worst I’ve heard from this label. The piano
sound is clangy and whenever the dynamics are loud the sound
crumbles and is poorly focused. To be honest, I’ve heard on
CD much better reproduction of radio broadcasts that are twenty
or more years older than this. This, really, is a recording
only for Curzon completists, though I don’t dismiss its usefulness
if, as I think is the case, there’s no commercial recording
of the work by him.
The Delius concerto
is a genuine rarity, not just in terms of Curzon’s legacy
but also because performances of the work itself are fairly
infrequent. The work had its origins in an early Fantasy
for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1897. It was then substantially
revised into a three-movement form in 1904 (see review
of a recording by Piers Lane) before a further revision in
1907 left the work in the form that’s best known these days
and in which the work plays without a break. Curzon plays
the version from 1907 – coincidentally the year he was born
– and he plays it with evident enthusiasm. As Bryce Morrison
puts it in his notes, Curzon is “ clearly in love with its
meandering, Grieg-inspired rhetoric.”
In fact I think
that phrase is an excellent summary of the concerto. The red-blooded,
romantic passages, in which the heart is very much worn on
the sleeve, may surprise some listeners. Right from the start
this note is struck in a big, confident, sweeping opening,
which Curzon plays for all it’s worth. The support from Pritchard
and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is similarly impassioned.
However, it’s not long before Delius is off down one of his
“meandering” stretches (2:11 – 3:50) and Curzon judges the
reflective mood unerringly. But for much of the movement the
mood is bold and striking, as in the passage containing huge
piano chords from around 7:13. The second movement, which
takes over at 11:11, starts as a dreamy idyll. Curzon and
Pritchard are good in this ruminative section. Gradually the
music builds to a climax in which the horns are to the fore
before the pensive mood of the opening is restored. The final
section (from around 19:00) is linked to the previous movement
by a piano cadenza. Much of this closing section is red-blooded
romantic stuff but Delius can’t resist inserting some reflective
musings and they’re presented very well here, a good example
being the beautiful, quietly singing passage with a solo violin
joining the piano (around 22:00). This is not one of the composer’s
finest works but it’s good to hear a master pianist giving
such a fine account. In his notes Bryce Morrison reminds us
that in his early career Curzon had a very wide concerto repertoire
but I wonder how often he played this Delius work – it would
be fascinating to know. I assume from the date and venue of
the performance that it was given at the Promenade Concerts.
It is accorded a Proms-style ovation.
Despite the sonic
limitations of the Beethoven work this is a valuable and most
interesting release. Bryce Morrison quotes Curzon thus: “You
see, the joy of a performance is that it disappears like an
imprint on water, lost for ever.” Well, thanks to BBC Legends
these performances have not been lost for ever and Curzon’s
many admirers will be profoundly grateful for that.