Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (1805-6) [34:01]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 Emperor (1809) [39:01]
Clifford Curzon (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. (4) April 1954, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna;
(5) June 1957, Sofiensaal, Vienna
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC318 [73:02]
It's good to see Clifford Curzon's work restored to circulation, though I'm surprised to see that the G major concerto was an original monaural recording — one thinks of Decca as more forward-looking than, say, RCA, which was already recording in stereo in early 1954. Pristine Audio presents the performance in what it calls Ambient Stereo, "retaining a central mono sound but allowing hall ambience some realistic stereo spread" (sic). The result is clear and listenable — as, say, the "electronic stereo" horrors of the 1960s were not — but it's still mono.
It's a good performance, more rugged than some. The lyrical themes that dominate this score can tempt pianists into too soft-edged and yielding a manner: one noted soloist I heard, years ago, seemed to be trying to turn the piece into Chopin. Curzon doesn't scant the music's singing qualities, but, influenced and abetted by his conductor, he projects it with clear Classical contours and a sense of weight. Thus, in the Andante con moto, the piano replies to the stark string octaves stoically; Curzon inflects the chords sensitively, but he doesn't wilt.
Knappertsbusch, too, plays this music for weight and depth. The third theme in the first movement, with its descending scales, sounds solemnly wistful. His treatment of the closing Rondo is less playful than usual, but it's not particularly "slow," and the climaxes blaze majestically. Typically, the conductor allows some slightly runny string articulations, but he does treat the pianos with an unexpected delicacy.
Even after an extended pause between tracks, the first, tutti chord of the Emperor, "open" and deep, dramatically underscores the benefits of stereo. This work registers with a vivid presence lacking in the earlier recording: the horns sound rich, the bass strings unusually clear and focused. Balances favour the piano, to the point that lightweight piano figurations occasionally obscure thematic activity in the orchestra. Tuttis can sound a bit edgy up top.
The performance is a fine one, bold and extroverted, anchored by weight and power. Curzon's playing rings out freely, notably in the finale's theme. The casual "Knappertsbusch way" is more strongly evident here: in some loose chording in the Adagio's opening string chorale, and in some conspicuous double entries in the Finale, the first occurring at 1:31. The horns are surprisingly shapely, however, in the first movement's second theme.
If you like your Beethoven in the grand Central European manner — and don't mind putting up with limited, tastefully refurbished sonics in the G major — you will enjoy this issue.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.