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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [31:23]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1803) [32:30 & 32:37]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-6) [30:46]
Ania Dorfmann (piano) (1)
Artur Rubinstein, (piano) (3)
Myra Hess (piano) (3)
Rudolf Serkin (piano) (4)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live broadcasts, 1944-46, NBC Studio 8H, Radio City, New York
From the series The Complete NBC Broadcasts
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC577 [67:12 + 67:20]

These recordings are from a very different era. They are distinguished in concept and in execution from what we now regard as standard in Beethoven performances. It’s difficult now fully to appreciate how hugely important Arturo Toscanini was to America and to a slightly lesser extent to the UK. It’s estimated that in 1950, 50% of USA citizens knew who Toscanini was. I fear that no conductor today is likely to be recognised by 1% of the populace.

Along with Felix Weingartner, Toscanini set the standard for objective Beethoven and it wasn’t until much later, with the release of live recordings that the much more subjective Furtwängler drew a really significant following. What we have here, thanks to the miraculous work of Pristine Audio, are four recordings of Beethoven piano concertos recorded “live” in Studio 8H - a venue notorious for its very dry acoustic. We are transported back over seventy years. Period ‘colour’ is provided by the radio announcer Ben Grauer at the beginning and end of each performance. It’s a lovely touch.

Ania Dorfmann, a Russian pianist, is really best known for her performances of Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 with Toscanini. The present recording dates from earlier than the commercial inscription which is in the huge Toscanini Edition groaning on my shelf and previously available with Serkin’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Right from the start it’s clear that the orchestra is in the hands of a maestro and there are some lovely touches from the wind amid the sheer force of the orchestra. Dorfmann seems well suited to the definite style of Toscanini but the effect is somewhat unrelenting. It’s not an especially comfortable sound, despite Pristine’s efforts. Only in the final movement do I feel any of the spirit of this favourite concerto, actually written second, coming through. This is an entirely “hard”, almost insensitive reading and I miss being moved in the slow movement.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 receives two performances which differ considerably. Rubinstein and Toscanini each have clear ideas on how this concerto should go. Unfortunately they’re not like-minded. There’s a similarity to the incompatibility here in the famous/infamous Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 recording between Sviatoslav Richter and the BPO under Karajan (DG). Although Rubinstein recorded a considerable amount of Beethoven and set down at least three complete cycles for RCA he may not have been an ideally apposite choice. This is as opposed to his Chopin, a composer with whom he had an affinity and on whom he was an established authority. The orchestra seems recessed in this recording and, although there are some lovely touches in the finale, the playing is not free from imperfections. The Largo goes fairly well and the sound, though inevitably “dry”, is a revelation, the piano being well captured. Views cannot help but be subjective and I concede that it would have been marvellous to have been at the concert. However, I’m judging a recording and one has only to turn to Gilels/Ludwig (Warner) from 1958, to be in a different world. There you will find sheer poetry instead of frenzied prose. That was with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and was produced by Walter Legge. This was the same Legge who, in 1952, told the 85-year-old Toscanini that he should re-record his entire repertoire.

The British pianist Dame Myra Hess has a very recognisable style and a flowing mellifluous sound. She was famous for her wartime concerts at The National Gallery, London. My late mother-in-law saw her there whilst teaching at Haberdashers School. Anyone who has seen extracts on YouTube will have seen this indomitable lady however the delicacy of her playing is remarkable. This NBC performance is, to my ears, head and shoulders above the others and should be required listening for all lovers of Beethoven or the piano. Close listening indicates that Hess was also going to be especially fine playing Brahms. Toscanini and his orchestra are very robust which suits the concerto and the soloist. The sound is good too. The recording appears previously to have been on Naxos but it seems that she never made a commercial recording which is a shame.

Rudolf Serkin was a highly regarded pianist and was the violinist Adolf Busch’s son-in-law. I’ve always respected rather than warmed to his playing and feel similarly about this performance of Piano Concerto No. 4. He made several later versions of the concerto, some of which are in an 11 CD collection on Sony Unsurprisingly, all his versions of this work are slower.

The brief but sufficient notes explain that between 1937 and 1954 - his period with the NBC - Toscanini presided over only thirteen piano concerto performances and five of these were with his son-in-law, Vladimir Horowitz. Whilst only one of these recordings would be considered ideal to my twenty-first century ears, I’m extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to hear these piano giants in good sound. Whilst Toscanini wasn’t really temperamentally attuned to collaborations, his skill and prowess as a Beethoven conductor comes shining through. My next port-of-call will be Toscanini’s New York recordings, also on Pristine, I can’t wait.
David R Dunsmore

Recording details
PC1: 12 November 1944; PC3: (AR): 29 October 1944; PC4: 26 November 1944; PC3: (MH): 24 November 1946

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