Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [32:56]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor” (1809) [39:02]
Emil Gilels (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 26-27, 30 April, 1 May 1957. ADD
REGIS RRC1367 [72:09]

These famous performances were issued on the Columbia label in the late 1950s. No recording details are given with this disc, nor any information on re-mastering or sources. As far as I can make out, this identical coupling has already appeared on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series as well as on Testament. Both those issues would provide the potential purchaser with a substantial clue that these were period recordings, but this one doesn’t at all, and that is to be regretted. The booklet contains only a solid and engaging article on the works by Hugo Shirley. I have not heard either the EMI or the Testament transfers.

This a magnificent performance of the G major Concerto from Gilels, certainly as fine as any I have heard. The pacing of all three movements is beautifully judged, and the balance between the dramatic and more romantically reflective moments is perfectly realised. Honours are equally divided between the spellbinding soloist and the brilliant Philharmonia of the period under Leopold Ludwig. There is something remarkable about the way the pianist really does tame the orchestra in the extraordinary slow movement. The opening of the finale is so close to a real pianissimo – as the score demands – and the break between the movements so perfectly timed that the finale steals in almost like a continuation of that second movement. It is a remarkable moment. The playing throughout is of almost Olympian authority and calm. In short, it’s a must-have. The problem, however, is the sound. The work begins well enough, though it is quite obvious that it is a period recording, but as the first movement progresses the sound deteriorates, bringing back memories of the old days when distortion, especially around the piano’s high notes, would have one scurrying to the stylus price lists. Things improve for the beginning of the slow movement, but again the sound begins to deteriorate the nearer the listener gets to what would have been the end of the LP side. In addition, there are other sundry noises on this “second side”, swishes and the like, that ominously remind the listener of those “old days”. To what extent this will discourage listeners depends on each one’s individual tolerance of this kind of thing. In my case I wouldn’t now want to be without this performance, but I’m surprised that it seems not to have been possible to present it in substantially better sound.

The performance of the Emperor is equally fine. There is a surprising finger slip from Gilels in the opening flourishes, but this is nonetheless a stunning reading from a technical point of view. Listen to the thunderous return of the opening arpeggios, modified, at the beginning of the first movement recapitulation (around 12 minutes), and that, after the most magical of pianissimos. The second movement is taken very slowly, with a more romantic feel to the phrasing than we would expect nowadays, and once again the link between this movement and the finale is achieved with exquisite poise. There is a fair amount of wonderfully delicate soft playing in the finale, and as the music gears up to prepare for the end, in the passage just preceding the piano/timpani duet, Gilels’ playing is delightfully jaunty. The orchestra plays superbly throughout under Ludwig’s direction, with the difficult repeated dotted rhythm in the finale maintained with great success. The balance between piano and orchestra is exemplary, to the extent that the held horn notes that accompany the piano at various points in the finale are clearly audible. The sound in the Emperor is far superior to that in the G major, with only minimal signs of end-of-side distortion. Alas, on my copy the stereo channels are reversed.

William Hedley

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

Magnificent performances from Gilels and Ludwig, but the sound is a problem in one of the concertos.