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Beethoven Concertos C220043
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op 15 (1795) [37:18]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op 19 (1795) [27:17]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op 37 (1800?) [35:15]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op 58 (1805-6) [35:22]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, ‘Emperor', Op 73 (1809) [38:43]
Choral Fantasy, Op 80 [18:34]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík
rec. live, October-November 1977, Herkulessaal, Munich Residence, Germany
Stereo ADD
ORFEO C220043 [3 CDs: 194:33]

This set has already been reviewed in comprehensive style by Ralph Moore so my own thoughts will be necessarily more concise, and I will simply focus on what are to me the most salient points of this set.

As RM notes, it was available back in 2005 but it was a case of ‘blink and it’s gone’ so let’s hope that this Bavarian Radio cycle will stick around considerably longer. It was recorded live on three days in October and November 1977 – 5th October for Concertos 1 and 2, 30th October for No. 5 and the Choral Fantasy and 4th November for Nos. 3 and 4. The venue was Munich’s intractable Herkulessaal, a very difficult, large venue for engineers as it swallows up sound and has a swirling echo.

Serkin recorded the set of five concertos in mono with Ormandy and the Philadelphians between 1950-55 and this can be found in the massive Sony box devoted to the conductor. This was followed by a 1962-65 stereo cycle split between Ormandy in Philadelphia and Bernstein in New York (Nos. 3 and 5). The final cycle, from which I’ve heard the fourth and fifth only, was made with Ozawa in Boston between 1981 and 1984 and it would have been better not to have released this Telarc set, but that’s the commercial imperative for you. There were, of course, numerous one-off live recordings made of Serkin in the concertos.

This Munich cycle reveals soloist and conductor in perfect accord. There’s focused but fluent exploration of all five concertos, and judicious balance between rhetoric and reserve. The partnership ensures consistency of approach in a way that the Ormandy monos do, as well, but in a far more concentrated time period, and whilst Ozawa directed well and there was a similar cohesive quality regarding conductor, orchestra and soloist, by the time of the Boston cycle Serkin’s technique and tone had collapsed. The early stereo preserves the divergent podium contributions of Ormandy and Bernstein.

The Emperor is authoritative all the way through and it’s as well to note the cast-iron condition of Serkin’s technique in 1977. Rafael Kubelík’s approach to dynamics and to phrasal shaping shows collegiate responsibility whilst the reverential tempo in the slow movement, which may seem unduly slow, is not in fact not so – Kempff and van Kempen and Rubinstein and Leinsdorf are only slightly quicker – so well does the conductor sustain the line. Serkin’s subtlety of articulation in the finale is also not without some humour. I have a feeling that his reputation is as a rather straightlaced Beethovenian in the concertos but there are many examples of supple playfulness in this cycle.

As everyone knows, tonal gravity such as Claudio Arrau produced in these concertos and expressive inwardness that Solomon showed in his cycle with Herbert Menges and André Cluytens, were never Serkin’s aesthetic. His clarity-conscious precision, which can be traced back to his earliest days and is manifest in his chamber recordings with Adolf Busch, offered a wholly different way – he was, in Debussy terms, more George Copeland than Walter Gieseking. This is most explicitly audible in the Fourth which is a magnificent success in its balancing of the music’s radical oppositional elements. The rapport evident in the Third Concerto is perhaps cosier than one of my own favourite recordings of this period, that of Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis which is a more youthfully vibrant reading. But the consistency and wisdom of Serkin and Kubelík offer their own just rewards in this concerto. Serkin’s performance of the cadenza is splendid and never merely magisterial, he being altogether too cerebral and structure-conscious an artist for superficialities.

The first two concertos are equally convincing. The First is full of refined phrasing, paragraphally perceived and not subject to extraneous incident. The slow movement is beautifully assured and the finale suitably witty. The Second is not far behind, in its Mozart and Haydn-leaning way, and points to one of the most memorable features of this set, which is its sheer consistency. Allied to indifferent performances this would of course mean nothing but when wedded to a central-European conception of the music, as here, when orchestra, conductor and pianist are in one accord, and you have a treasurable set. I’ve not mentioned the Choral Fantasy, which is utterly superb, Serkin playing with heroic engagement, the music alive in every bar. If you have skated over this work, don’t make that mistake here; you’ll be rivetted.

I am certainly with RM as regards sound quality. The engineering is well done but there’s a somewhat diffuse quality that robs tuttis and means that the orchestra, which plays beautifully (as you’d expect), is somewhat backward in the balance. That said, these live recordings are now 45 years old and I am fully prepared to absorb that limitation in the light of what is so vivid, so communicative, and so truthfully humane in this cycle.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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