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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 [31:16]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 Emperor* [36:22]
Walter Gieseking (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
*Grosses Funkorchester/Artur Rother
rec. 13 October 1948, EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London; *23 January 1945, Saal Nr. 1, Haus des Rundfunks (Reichsender, Berlin)
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1142(1) [67:40]

 
Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) was renowned above all for his Debussy but he was no mean interpreter of the Classical repertoire, as these two Beethoven performances show.
 
The recording of the First Concerto was made for EMI and has been transferred from 78s. By and large the transfer is successful though I noted a number of places where the pitch wobbled a little, though never to such an extent as to mar ones enjoyment. I was intrigued to read in Farhan Malik’s booklet note that when the recording first appeared the name of the conductor was withheld for contractual reasons. That’s ironic since the conducting, especially of the first movement, is most distinguished. Kubelik starts things softly, as it should be done, and what follows is one of the most delightful accounts of this movement I can recall hearing. The tempo is fleet and the playing is really light-footed. Kubelik obtains very spruce results from the Philharmonia and when Gieseking joins them his playing is elegant and nicely articulated. The music has a truly Mozartian feel, which is completely appropriate. I loved this fresh, crisp reading in which Gieseking and Kubelik seem completely attuned.
 
The slow movement is simple, unaffected and graceful. Gieseking’s playing gives great pleasure and the important clarinet part is well taken. I’m not quite so enamoured of the finale, however. The pace is surprisingly steady and this, I’m sure, is the main reason why the performance sounds po-faced and careful. To be sure, it’s all clear and civilised but the music making lacks the essential sparkle. It’s rather a disappointment after what has gone before and as a result I have to qualify my welcome.
 
This recording of the Emperor Concerto is billed by Music & Arts as “the only complete stereo recording of a classical work in stereo surviving from [World War II]”. The performance has been released twice before by this label (catalogue no. 637 in 1990 and catalogue no. 815 in 1994). I’ve heard neither of those releases but they must feature a different transfer of the original source since both performances on this present disc are now appearing in 2004 transfers by Aaron Z. Snyder.
 
From the recording date it will be noted that the performance was recorded in the closing months of the war when conditions in Berlin must have been pretty grim. Indeed, in his review Jonathan Woolf commented that what can only be the noise of anti-aircraft batteries can be heard for a while, from 16:53 in the first movement just after the start of a solo passage for the piano. How on earth the musicians concentrated under such circumstances, let alone turned in a good performance, is beyond me. It is a good performance, captured in remarkably good sound given the age of the recording and the times in which it was made. There’s excellent clarity and the one qualification I have about the sound is that the orchestral bass is often somewhat booming. However, this is not a serious issue.
 
The first movement opens with a strong, energetic traversal of the orchestral tutti. Gieseking’s playing is admirable: at times the lightness of his fingerwork impresses – between 5:26 and 5:57, for example – while at other times, such as the passage beginning at 10:20, he can be suitably fiery. His interpretation of the slow movement is cultivated and then both he and the orchestra offer a virile, energetic traversal of the finale. The performance as a whole has its rough edges, mainly in the orchestral playing, but it’s well worth hearing.
 
John Quinn
 
See also review by Colin Clarke and review by Jonathan Woolf