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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]

While conductor Arturo Toscanini is associated indelibly with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, it comes as a moderate surprise that on only four occasions did he program the composer’s piano concertos for the radio broadcasts of his NBC Symphony Orchestra. This 2-CD set from Pristine Audio collects all four of these performances, in newly remastered recordings, taken from previously-unheard source discs.

Three of these four broadcasts comprise a portion of the 1944 Beethoven Festival that Toscanini conducted on the General Motors Symphony of the Air program. Each features a different notable pianist: Ania Dorfmann on the First; Artur Rubinstein with the Third; and Rudolf Serkin takes the Fourth. Dame Myra Hess also made an appearance on the program, with a 1946 reprise of the Third Piano Concerto. Pristine’s presentation does not include the full radio programs, but Ben Garver’s brief introductions and outros of each piece, as well as audience applause, are included intact. The Rubinstein and Serkin recordings were released officially by RCA, permitting a direct comparison with Pristine’s work.

Dorfmann re-recorded the First Concerto with Toscanini in a studio setting. It’s apparent there was some kind of miking mishap during the broadcast, because the piano in the louder sections (especially the marcato episodes of the first movement) is significantly distorted. However, it’s a very fine performance that some consider superior to the studio version. While there are issues with the piano sound, the orchestra comes across without problems. The articulations of the strings and winds in particular sound quite lifelike. Dorfmann’s sforzandi on the piano are very striking. On this live version, Dorfmann plays the first-movement cadenza by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), rather than the usually-heard ones by Beethoven. Dorfmann opts for the Beethoven in the studio version. Dorfmann’s gentle and ethereal trilling in the Reinecke cadenza is reminiscent of the Aria of the op. 111 sonata, which Beethoven would write some 25 years later. The slow movement has surprisingly good dynamic contrasts for a radio broadcast. The pizzicato moments come across very nicely. The Rondo is rather on the fast side (no surprise with Toscanini at the helm), and it’s radiantly joyous. It’s a shame about the distortion issues, because this is an excellent performance. But as it is, it’s primarily of historical interest.

Rubinstein’s classic traversal of the C minor concerto opens quite broadly, and is a bit hissy in the quiet parts. The slow movement is wonderfully sensitive. The balance between the piano and orchestra is excellent. The Rondo has a biting edge to its general playfulness. It’s almost a bit sardonic, with wildly shifting tempos. Rubinstein’s runs are just effortless sounding. He plays Busoni’s edition of Beethoven’s cadenza. The sound is a very significant improvement over the RCA official release. There, the piano sounds rather plinky; on Pristine’s version, it sounds like a real piano (and not only that, but a real Steinway). The balance seems much better as well on the Pristine disc. Anyone who treasures this performance will be well advised to seek this out.

Rudolf Serkin delivers one of my favorite Beethoven concerto performances with his dynamic Fourth. There’s an unfortunate bit of groove noise at the beginning on this disc, but once the performance gets under way, the drive and the interaction of the soloist and the orchestra are peerless, with particular emphasis given to Beethoven’s obsessive use of the motif from the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Serkin plays Beethoven’s cadenza, Biamonti 509/1, in the first movement. Toscanini and Serkin do a marvelous job of contrasting the bombast of the orchestra with the meditational calm of the piano in the second movement. The Rondo is very exciting, and the piano sounds terrific on top of the nervous energy of the strings. Beethoven’s cadenza, Biamonti 509/3, is used at the close of the Rondo. This is a performance seldom matched in succeeding years. The contrast between this and the RCA official release from Sony is not quite as striking as with the Rubinstein, but the piano here does sound more natural and full-voiced. On the RCA the piano seems a bit recessed, but Pristine’s version keeps them on a far more even footing.

Finally, Myra Hess plays the Third Concerto a few years later. Although not appreciably faster than the Rubinstein version, Toscanini is driving the orchestra somewhat harder here, giving the sound a much more energetic and furious quality. The string sound is somewhat on the thin side, and there is a fair amount of hiss. The high woodwinds come across particularly well, as does the lower bass. The piano is a bit muddy sounding in the first movement, but sounds better as the concerto proceeds. Even though the middle movement is given a more languid treatment, Toscanini still keeps the narrative moving forward. In all, an exciting and worthwhile performance with unfortunate piano sound issues that keep it from being better known.

As can be seen from the comparison with the RCA releases of two of these concertos, Andrew Rose has worked more magic on these ancient recordings. Pristine’s Ambient Stereo process is quite subtly applied, giving the sound a bit of air without indulging in theatrics. Pristine continues to allow us to reevaluate Toscanini's work with significantly improved sound.

Mark S. Zimmer

Previous review: David Dunsmore

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