Claudio Arrau - Rarities: 1929-1951
Details at end of review
WARNER 2564 639427 [3 CDs: 69:07 + 69:41 + 64:03]

From an interview between a pianist and his interlocutor; pianist first.
It was awful. I was going to say, "Who is this pianist?" The truth is that I found it very fast. I hated it. Much too fast.

Did you recognise yourself in the performance?
Not at all.

Not in any of the details?
Well, in some of the details. In the two solos. When I hear it now, so fast and so straightforward – I just can’t understand it. It loses all meaning. Where one expects some lingering, it is so metronomic.

The pianist was Claudio Arrau (Conversations with Arrau with Joseph Horowitz) and the performance by which he was so disappointed was the one included in this 3-CD box, conducted by Basil Cameron and recorded in London in 1947. Arrau’s performances, hardly uniquely, grew progressively more measured over the years. The Cameron recording was faster than the Giulini, which in turn was faster than the Haitink; live performances from the 1970s confirm the trend as an absolute.

Part of the problem as Arrau himself acknowledged may have lain in his formative years. His teacher, Martin Krause, didn’t like the Brahms piano concertos and presumably didn’t teach them; he certainly didn’t teach them to Arrau. Consequently he came to them rather late, maybe in his later twenties, and this seems to have inculcated a sense of doubt in his mind, even though he was in his forties when he first came to make this recording with Cameron. One thing Arrau specifically noted in his playing was the "superficial excitement" which he explicitly weighed against the "spiritual values" that he found so singularly lacking in his younger self’s performance. Arrau generally denigrated much of his youthful playing as "too fast" and there was some critical evidence that the Berlin critics thought so too. Nevertheless this recording will strike many listeners as following well-established tempo norms and of demonstrating well-correlated balances between drive and lyricism.

One can judge that in the first movement where Arrau and Cameron take almost the exact same tempo as the slightly earlier 1945 Decca pairing of Curzon and Jorda. The piano receives rather too favourable a balance with Arrau – just too far in front of the orchestra for absolute comfort – but the compensatory features are the auditory clarity of Arrau’s passagework. He and Curzon stress the maestoso elements rather more so than the galvanisingly fleet Backhaus with Boult in 1932, whose drive would doubtless have horrified Arrau. What one notices in the performance, despite the pianist’s strictures, is the ease of the shaping of melodic lines and the detail Arrau’s points in his constantly mobile and articulate left hand. The slow movement sounds songful, lyrical and intimate. Typically Arrau couldn’t even bring himself to listen to it ("Maybe it was Cameron who pushed") but we can listen to his stressing of the upper left hand voicings and his altogether sympathetic playing – even though the orchestral passages are rather blunted by the recording. The finale is certainly slower than Curzon’s and it possesses strength and power if not magnetic drive. The orchestral basses sound rather lateral and spread and, taking Arrau’s considered view of the work, I would suppose that he found in the finale a microcosm of the greater faults in his reading; a lack of the cumulative and inevitable ascent to triumph implicit in the score. If the concerto is an assertion of the pianist’s physical and psychological will – Arrau was well versed in psychoanalysis – then his later performances would better embody those qualities. At least for him.

I wrote the above in my review of the Brahms on Urania SP 4216 nearly eleven years ago and it still seems to me worthwhile to understand Arrau’s very particular viewpoint when it comes to the Brahms. The further away in time an artist gets from his performances often the more frustrated he becomes at his own erstwhile conception. The recording itself was a bit woolly and lacked the ultimate in clarity – and even this Warner restoration could do with a little lightening of texture, but it’s preferable to the Urania. In that disc the companion was the 1947 Waldstein Sonata, but here we have a particularly sympathetic Mozart Sonata K570, where use of the pedal is sparing, and the slow movement expressively lyric.

Let’s briefly recap regarding this release. This Rarities three-disc set – I think ‘rarities’ is somewhat pushing it, but let’s pass over that – contains music recorded between 1929 and 1951. The first disc is the Brahms-and-Mozart. The central disc is devoted to Beethoven sonatas made between 1947 and 1951; Op.10 No.3, the Moonlight and Op.31 No.3. It also contains two alternative takes from the Op.10. No.3 sonata made in 1951. The 1958-59 Beethoven recordings Arrau made for EMI make an interesting point of comparison here. That Op.10 No.3 sonata, contained in the Arrau Icon box [9184322], has a significantly faster slow movement than this earlier one, though it also witnesses Arrau’s stabilisation of the Rondo finale at a more relaxed tempo than he took in ’51. The alternatives are valuable to hear, though of course there’s no real interpretative difference and a touch of pre-echo. The Moonlight and the Op.31 No.3 are eloquent examples of his mid-period, sufficiently forward-moving, and lighter in density than was later the case.

The final disc presents a mixed programme, with a good amount of Chopin to the fore. The Scherzo No.4, played with refined elegance, dates from 1950 and there’s some valuable evidence of his Debussy the following year in the shape of La puerta del Vino from the Preludes. Granados’ Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor is neither as vivid nor as powerful as Myra Hess’s recording. The remainder of this disc is given over to a sequence of pre-war recordings he made for Electrola and Parlophone. I’ve discussed these in the context of Marston 52023-2 which contains all Arrau’s pre-war recordings in a 2-CD set – they included Carnaval, which isn’t in this Warner release. Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este is vividly played; the sense of animation is visceral and the wide frequency range allows one to appreciate Arrau’s mastery of tonal gradation. The Chopin sequence is well-selected, avoiding the questionably effective recording of the Etude in F Op 10 No 8 but including the better-played Op.10 No. 4 and Op.15 No.2 Etudes. There are also two good but not elite performances of more Chopin, the A flat Ballade and C sharp minor Scherzo.

This is a useful distillation of essentially early to mid-period Arrau. If you’re intrigued by the pre-war sampling you’ll need the Marston box, and for the later EMI recordings the Icon box is a handy, attractively priced place to start.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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CD 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op.15* [47:03]
*Philharmonia Orchestra/Basil Cameron
rec. 20-21 January 1947
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No.17 in B flat K570 [22:06]
rec. 1951

CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major Op.10 No.3 [23:55]
rec. 1951 (with alternative takes of third and fourth movement)
Piano Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor Op.27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’ [16:20]
rec. 1 November 1950, No.3 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat Op.31 No.3[22:40]
rec. 10, 14 January 1947, No.3 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 3
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Scherzo No.4 in E Op.54 [11:35]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Six chants polonais (after Frédéric Chopin): Meine Freuden [3:59]
rec. 1950
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La puerta del vino (Préludes, book II, No.3) [3:18]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (Goyescas, book I, No.4) [6:12]
rec. 30 June 1951
Frédéric CHOPIN
Ballade No.3 in A flat Op.47 [6:51]
Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor Op.39 [7:29]
rec. 4 April 1939
Etude in F minor Op.25 No.2 [1:29]
Etude in C sharp minor Op.10 No.4 [1:57]
Prelude in F Op.28 No.23 [0:53]
Etude in A flat Op.25 No.1 [2:28]
rec. 23 January 1929, Berlin
Waltz No.4 in F Op.34 No.3 [2:15]
Schwanengesang D957 - No.4 Ständchen [2:53]
Valse mélancolique [5:39]
rec. 27 February 1928
Années de pèlerinage (Troisième année) - No.4 Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este [7:01]
rec. 15 October 1928