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One of the finest versions


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.3 in c minor Op.37 (1797-1803) [32:57]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G Op.58 (1806-1808) [32:36]
Rudolf Firkušn (piano: 3)
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano: 4)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Rafael Kubelk (3), Karl Bhm (4)
rec. September 1959, Pavillon de Montreux

I’m not sure if there was a Beethoven concerto cycle in Montreux in September 1959 but both these radio broadcast performances come from the Pavillon de Montreux, a week apart. The earlier is the Czech pairing of Firkušn and Kubelk in the Third Concerto followed by the heavyweight Germans Backhaus and Bhm in the Fourth.

Firkušn performed the Third quite often in the 50s and in fact a rather earlier 1955 live broadcast has done the rounds for years, originally on AS Disc, and much more recently on Pristine Audio. He was to record it in the studio with Susskind and the Philharmonia toward the end of the decade. Kubelk directs crisply ensuring that inner part writing is audible and providing solicitous accompaniment for his compatriot. The Amsterdam winds are typically characterful, the strings lithe, and the rhythm buoyant. Firkušn is on excellent form and shapes the first movement cadenza with great sensitivity. Though there’s a very brief incident from him at the start of the slow movement his control of successive development is almost wave-like in its undemonstrative eloquence. This is a deeply musical reading on a par with the Cantelli-directed New York performance, but perhaps just a touch more technically precise.

Backhaus and Bhm were old colleagues and both had already recorded the Fourth Concerto with others. Bhm set down a 78rpm set with Gieseking in Dresden in 1939 whilst Backhaus had beaten him to it in 1930 in London with the ever-dependable Landon Ronald. This was the concerto that seemed to suite Backhaus best; its vehemence and its poetic liquidity alike. Strangely, the piano sounds a degree more recessed than it had for Firkušn, so maybe there were changes in microphone placement or in the placement of the piano on stage, unlikely though the latter sounds. Nevertheless Backhaus, who had also recorded it in the studio in Vienna with Clemens Krauss a few years earlier and was soon to re-record it with Schmidt-Isserstedt, is on outstanding form. He takes the first-movement cadenza by the scruff of the neck whilst the philosopher-poet is at work in the slow movement. The vigorous vitality, earthy and alive, that he invariably found in the finale is topped by a performance of the cadenza. There are many other examples of Backhaus in this concerto on the wing – with Bhm several times (including a DVD from 1970) - and Knappertsbusch on Orfeo, and Fricsay amongst others. This Montreux performance, however, is fit to stand with them.

Jonathan Woolf

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