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Thread: The Emperor (Beethoven)

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    The Emperor (Beethoven)

    What makes Beethoven’s music so great? Why, after two hundred years, do so many of his works still get recorded and performed so often? His very ubiquity in the classical music world seems stifling to some, who complain that his music is over-recorded and crowds out other, newer or more obscure works in the concert hall. Why, John Adams wondered in a recent interview with Gramophone, was Beethoven turned to after 9/11 and not some more recent American composer? Surely there is a reason. And not merely a commercial one. Generally, I don’t think much about it. I just accept that Beethoven really is better than pretty much everyone else. Oh, sure, other composers have penned masterpieces that fully match up to Beethoven’s – and everyone can come up with a list of perhaps dozens of names – but none have the staying power than old Ludwig van does. Not only do I not tire of hearing new recordings of the Eroica, I actually eagerly look forward to it. I can’t say the same for, say, Bruckner’s Eighth or even Mahler’s Ninth. (Okay, maybe not Mahler’s Ninth, but you get the picture.) But I pondered this reality. Why?

    For me, I think it’s really rather simple. Beethoven achieves something special in most of his music. While his pieces are obviously expertly and painstakingly crafted, with numerous examples of brilliant flights of fancy contained within a rigorous overall musical architecture, Beethoven’s music can still sound spontaneous, as if bursting forth from nowhere. He will take a simple theme or figuration and imbue it with power, with emotion, indeed, with emotional truth, like no one else; Beethoven will grab you by your shirt, shake you, slap you if need be, and proclaim with great earnestness and zeal that right now – right now – you must hear the truth. The grand gestures, the powerful crescendos – those are not even remotely important in and of themselves. No! They explode with emotional truth. When the C major chords literally erupt in the finale of the overplayed, perhaps almost hackneyed Fifth, who is not moved? Who does not feel shivers up and down their spine? When the Eroica announces its arrival, who does not expect and crave a great symphonic drama extolling the human spirit – its strength, its heroism, it indomitable greatness? Even beyond the great middle period works, one hears this. When the Ninth emerges out of chaos, or when the Ode to Joy theme finally emerges in the full orchestra, who fails to be moved? This immediacy, it is part of Beethoven’s music, early, middle, and late.

    There is something more though. Beethoven speaks to you. Personally. Even in the greatest, showiest, grandest works, Beethoven speaks not only to humanity generally, but to you directly. Whatever your circumstance, whatever your failures, whatever your successes, whatever your desires, Beethoven is speaking to you. When confined by his deafness, Beethoven set out to conquer his ailment, a deadly ailment to a man with his career, and in so doing crafted individual statements that reflect upon not only the more extroverted, positive aspects of humanity, but also on more personal, introspective, and even tender emotions, fears, and dreams all of us have. Beethoven experienced these things as you and I do. But he was a genius, a true genius, and thus he could elucidate these emotions that words can never fully or even adequately describe in the most truthful expression there is: Music. That is the source of Beethoven’s greatness. That is why he is so revered and so recorded and so frequently played.

    I felt such a preamble necessary before beginning my survey of Beethoven’s last and greatest piano concerto. The great E flat concerto sums up everything that Beethoven knew of the genre, includes every substantive “trick”, and speaks emotional truth that no other piano concerto before or since does. Not even his greatest predecessor (that would be Mozart) or successors (those would be Brahms, Schumann, and Bartok) can match what he achieved. Look, or rather, listen to what he achieved: a grand, epic concerto that marries the piano and orchestra together as equal musical partners, each there to support and aid the other, each allowing the other to bask in the musical glory of Beethoven’s brilliant writing. Listen to how a gigantic opening movement combines virtuoso writing for all instruments, the piano above all, without burdening the piano with so many formal strictures at first while eliminating the need for traditional cadenzas. It’s all integrated, it all coalesces into a masterful twenty or so minutes of grand orchestral pronouncements and sweeping piano explorations. The second, slow movement, with its more introspective, at times possibly tender ruminations, its contemplation of what has been and what is to come, offers a brief, glorious rest before the titanic and heroic concluding movement erupts again into theatrics, yes, but into meaningful theatrics. It is a momentous work, a tremendous work of genius, fully deserving of its nickname. And how ironic, that while that name fits, that it would no doubt have enraged Beethoven himself, given his well-known disdain for this particular title. Perhaps, though, only a humanist such as Beethoven could have possibly written something as magnificent as this. Make that definitely.

    So I felt a survey appropriate. When I first decided to do it, I had 21 versions in my collection, but then, by chance, BRO got a couple of intriguing versions in – the first two reviewed below – and then, after some deliberation, I gave in and snapped up the Friedrich Gulda concerto and sonata cycle to add a third. That brings the total in this survey to a nice two dozen. When faced with such a large number of recordings with such a bewildering array of talent on offer – 16 pianists, 21 conductors, and 12 orchestras – how does one proceed? I determined the best course of action was largely a random one. I decided to listen to some new versions first followed by whatever happened to tickle my fancy after that, with only the last two recordings set aside until the end because of the esteem in which I hold them. What follows is a journal of sorts of almost four weeks of listening to this work.

    I started with Wilhelm Kempff, but not with his more famous recordings with Paul van Kempen or Ferdinand Leitner. No, I started with Mr Kempff’s 1936 recording with Peter Raabe leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Raabe is a name entirely new to me. I can’t even recall seeing it before. No matter. This is a fine recording, perhaps Kempff’s best. The work opens in typical Kempffian style: relatively light and soft, definitely poetic, and most assuredly graced by Kempff’s ingratiating tone. Forceful eruptions segue into a gliding, easy sound. The Berlin Philharmonic play extremely well, and surprisingly lightly, though they have more respective oomph than Kempff. How best to describe the initial mood? Regal, I suppose. This isn’t an heroic or dramatic reading, but rather it sounds as though it was meant for a regent to hear. Anyhoo, Kempff’s initial return remains light, but he really cranks out the first big solo run, his trills sparkling and lively. At about seven minutes in, Kempff takes on the dramatic section where the left and right hands each play markedly different and equally important parts, and his approach is well nigh perfect. He clearly delineates each part with equal weight and authority. Indeed, he almost presents the illusion of two pianists playing. Superb. The return of this device later on is equally successful. The second movement finds Kempff in reassuring territory. His exquisitely beautiful entry sounds almost heavenly at times in its delicate softness; Kempff can play layer upon tender layer of softness like no one else, his elegant touch always reminding one that so much can be expressed further down the dynamic ladder. The Berliners play wonderfully, with some wonderful cello accompaniment especially noteworthy. The third movement opens quite nicely, with a nice level of energy but without any bursts of power from Kempff. The orchestra is a bit out of step with their musical ally here: they erupt in a fiery musical ball. Perhaps the two parties should be more in sync, but the contrast is quite nice. Sound is acceptable for its time, with plenty of hiss and numerous scratches trying but failing to obscure the music. All told, this offered a fine opening to my journey, and set a high standard for others to match and, ultimately, beat.

    Just before starting this little survey, I picked up a couple Vox sets of Ms Guiomar Novaes at the piano as well. What better way to familiarize myself with her than with this concerto? Well, it turns out that Mozart is a better way, because her Emperor disappoints. The odd, possibly synthetic stereo sound, with a diffuse, soundstage-wide piano and recessed orchestra certainly doesn’t help anything. Her lack of energy and overall purpose does more damage. Novaes opens regally, like Kempff, but slightly more strongly. The orchestra – the Bamberg Symphony under Jonel Perlea – enters in a somewhat anemic, smoothed-out and flowing way. Little in the way of power or excitement is on tap. Novaes’ return sounds similar to her initial entry, but her flowing, legato-heavy style doesn’t produce the beauty of Kempff or any notable power. The left-right split is definitely underplayed, with little in the way of truly distinctive playing for either part. The second movement fares rather better, though it, too, lacks a distinctive element that really jumps out and grabs one’s attention. The finale is hampered by the same problems as the opening movement. Overall, there are some interesting things to hear here, but not enough for me to recommend it, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level this work demands.

    Taking the quasi-random approach allowed me to jump forward over four decades to 1997, when Evgeny Kissin laid down his (presumably first) take with James Levine and the Philharmonia. Kissin is one of the more maddening artists out there. His technical ability is clearly awesome; he can play anything, and not just well, but with obliterating, overwhelming command. But artistically, he makes curious choices. One could also say he makes poor choices. This piece, which should be within him to pull off with youthful, heroic brio, suffers from some unwise choices. He opens the piece well enough: it is perfectly played, with plenty of heft and power, with the steely tone to prove it, yet it still sounds restrained. He could play even faster, with more energy, even ferocity. But he holds back. Levine leads a reading to go right along with the soloist. The orchestra executes perfectly, but in a mechanistic sort of way. Everything is so well tuned and timed that any feeling of spontaneity slips away. Later, during the important left-right split, Kissin emphasizes the right hand in both volume and articulation, but, strangely enough, it all sounds more labored than Kempff. At the end of the movement, one puzzles over a recording where nothing is really objectionable, but where nothing is really memorable, either. The second movement opens with some beautiful playing from the orchestra, but only perfunctorily so. For his part, Kissin softens up a bit and plays with an appealing touch. However, as he progresses through the movement, his playing takes on a cloy, contrived feel; for instance, the middle section trills, while flawless, seem distant and detached. The whole thing turns into background music. That simply will not do! The third movement opens in exasperating fashion. While Kissin displays some fancy fingerwork, it is all too restrained. “Good lord, man, unleash your power!” is all I could think. But he doesn’t. Levine leads a very forceful accompaniment, but it still sounds by the numbers, if you will. When you combine the slightly bright and hard sound with what amounts to a largely superficial reading, the result is a recording that becomes harder to listen to through its 38 or so minutes.

    Next up is the first of two versions in my collection by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, here his 1957 recording with Vaclav Smetacek and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Yowza! Michelangeli positively dazzles in the opening. Speed, his inimitable tone, perfectly controlled dynamics, perfectly played notes with nary a one out of place: it’s all there. Smetacek and his provincial band prove quite up to the challenge of accompanying the great ivory tickler: energetic, driven, and well-drilled, they are perfectly in sync with the soloist. When Michelangeli returns, he dazzles and excites. His trills are perfect. Everything is perfect! When it comes time for that left-right song and dance, Michelangeli is perfect yet again! Every note is thoroughly thought through, both parts flawlessly executed, and for the life of me it sounds like two pianists are playing. But Art does let his humanity show up a bit later on: there are some rough chords at just after 10’. If anything, this only adds to the allure of the recording. Following this, at about 12’ in, is what I’ll call the Grand Flourish. After a long series of heavy piano chords and orchestral bombast, the pianist must reassert the masterly, and, well, grand role of the piano in the work. Michelangeli takes one’s breath away. The frantic chords and runs are so meticulously and passionately executed that one wonders if they can ever be bettered. But it’s not all flash. At about 17’, a slow solo passage is so exquisitely delivered by the hands of this unquestioned master as to sound almost literally magical. The forceful and thoroughly rousing close completely satisfies. The second movement is a marvel. Each note played by Michelangeli sounds as though it is the most important note ever written and played – until the next one. So much control, so much refined expression, so much precision is on display that one can’t help but be swept away. (And why would one not want to be swept away?) And all of this is played without a hint of sentimental sonic goo. Relatively brisk and clear, it utterly captivates. The third movement is, if anything, even better! It opens with a measured but awesome flurry from Michelangeli, and the orchestra follows suit. Michelangeli’s return brings with it more of that dazzling pianism. Everything is just so well done that one never wants it to end. This long concerto seems to basically whiz right on by in this recording. Of course, the fact that this is a live recording helps boost the excitement a bit, and that’s fine by me. Sound is decent to good, in good old-fashioned “big mono.” A few patches of distortion and some less than flawless low frequencies hardly detract from this reading. I guess I’ll end by saying I like it.

    Next up in the hit parade is Solomon Cutner’s (rightly) well-regarded 1955 recording with Herbert Menges and the Philharmonia, here in the Testament transfer. This version both compliments the Michelangeli recording and acts as foil. It compliments Michelangeli’s recording by being extremely well thought-out and meticulously played. It acts as a foil by being more fluid and restrained, in the best possible sense. These traits are on display right from the start. To aid in the cause, Menges leads a crisp, dutiful reading that, while lacking the last bit of heroic oomph or lively vigor, is nonetheless expertly executed and poised. Solomon’s return initially sounds a bit reticent, and at times the orchestra can overpower him, but this all matters very little. When the left-right section appears, the right hand leads as the left hand anchors everything with great sureness. The long series of trills are dispatched with disarming ease and taste by Mr Cutner, and when the Grand Flourish arrives, Solomon again sounds ever so impeccable: fluid, fleet, and focused, but never unleashed and unruly, he makes it his own. The second movement is played along similar lines. Solomon’s playing soothes and sounds nicely rounded, and if perhaps it sounds a bit detached, that hardly detracts one’s attention. The third movement opens with more energy than the first movement, and the tutti is more energetic still. If Solomon is not as assured as Michelangeli or Pollini in the more daunting passages, he still whips up enough power and drive to satisfy an Emperor addict. Good if not perfect mono sound in a very good transfer aids the whole enterprise. So, another fine rendition, to be sure, if, for me, not a top choice. I can easily hear how it could be someone else’s, though.

    The sixth version being the quarter way-mark, I figured it was time for Gieseking! I love Walter Gieseking’s pianism. Even when he blows it he’s entertaining. When he’s on, he’s fully equal to any other pianist ever, if not better. While the typical Gieseking traits – fleet, colorful, effortless, and superficial playing – may not seem to lend themselves to Beethoven, they actually do. And quite well. His particular set of strengths translates practically to an absence of fidgety, excessively probing playing always searching for the most profound meaning in every note and phrase and instead focuses on music and nothing but music. For the first of two recordings in my collection by this French-born German titan, I opted for his final, stereo recording with Alceo Galliera leading the Philharmonia. What a fine choice! The best way to describe the opening is: delicious! Gieseking’s fast opening and effortless style really suit the piece. Galliera then leads his band in a walloping, beefy accompaniment, with the strings really digging in and putting on a good show. All through the recording, Gieseking demonstrates that his ability to extract finely graded colors from the 88 keys is rivaled only by Michelangeli, and his dashing off of even the most challenging passages with a brash nonchalance always invigorates. His playing of the left-right split is of Kempff-Michelangeli quality, and the Grand Flourish is dazzling, graceful, and powerful. The second movement is delicious, too. Gieseking plays the whole thing with wonderful superficiality, in the best possible sense of the word. All is dispatched with taste and refinement and no navel gazing. The final movement opens with more remarkable pianism, but it gives off a playful vibe rather than a serious, heroic one. Energetic and athletic, that’s what Gieseking gives us, not storming the heavens. Galliera ably aids his cohort with accompaniment suitable to the interpretation. The extra heft he likes to bring rather helps the cause, and it makes me wonder, why aren’t there more recordings by this conductor? The early stereo sound is a bit diffuse and scratchy and can’t hide its age, but overall, this high-octane version is one to turn to to get away from more standard conceptions of the work. A definite winner, this rollicking good time is worth hearing for all that Gieseking goodness.

    I figured with one of Gieseking’s recordings down, I should move on to another of my favorite pianists. Robert Casadesus got the nod. Again, I have two versions by this pianist, and as with Gieseking, I opted for a later, stereo version, this one with Hans Rosbaud leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a 1961 recording. As I’ve written elsewhere, this isn’t really a contender. That’s clear pretty much from the start. Casadesus opens the piece nicely enough, his strengths all on display: his refined and restrained but well executed and reasonably swift playing hits all the right notes but lacks energy and enthusiasm. Rosbaud brings in the very weighty Concertgebouw, with meaty strings and rich winds, to good effect, but it lacks oomph and bite on the one hand and ultimate refinement on the other. There’s a certain grandeur to the proceedings, I suppose, but it’s a prosaic sort of grandeur. Casadesus’ return again shows him in fine if not quite top form – interpretively; technically he’s spot on – and even though he’s the main attraction he gets buried under the sheer weight of the band here and there. The left-right bit comes off well enough, but I just can’t muster much enthusiasm for the first movement. The second movement fares relatively better, with all involved playing beautifully and very quickly – the movement comes in at 6’35” where most reside in the 7’30” to 8’30” range. The third movement opens in a labored fashion, especially in the orchestra. Then, for whatever reason, the brass blare in striking relief. Of all of the versions listened to, this one has the most pronounced contribution by the brass. (One can only assume some spotlighting jiggery-pokery occurred at the mixing desk.) Despite being the only truly distinctive aspect of this recording, it doesn’t help things. Anyway, sound is high-quality early stereo and it is all perfectly acceptable if merely perfunctory.

    The next recording doesn’t suffer such a fate. Indeed, it’s one of the best yet (and therefore likely to be) made. I write of course about Rudolf Serkin’s 1962 recording with Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic. The opening is powerful, heroic, and powerful. Did I mention that it’s powerful? That’s how it should be! Serkin is a force of nature in his keyboard attack, with Bernstein his willing and able accomplice on the podium. Through the outer movements, Serkin varies his touch as appropriate, but he favors speed ‘n’ power, and blessedly so. Anyway, after Bernstein leads an all drama ‘n’ drive orchestral section, Serkin’s return is a bit more graceful with exquisite trills and perfect articulation. His take on the left-right split is breathtaking in its powerful delivery, each hand almost a miniature orchestra unto itself, and the Grand Flourish is awesome in both clarity and intensity. All the while, Lennie cracks the whip on his eager band. The end of the opener is as stirring as one could wish for, and one eagerly awaits the slow movement. And what a slow movement! Serkin now plays tenderly. The slowness of the movement – it comes in at 8’46” – allows one to savor the ravishing cello and horn accompaniments all the more, and it allows one to wallow in the musical brilliance of Serkin floating lovely melodies and delicate trills. I know this work isn’t really programmatic, but can’t one hear this slow movement as a brave soldier gently romancing a woman before the final battle? And that final battle is something else! Basically, it’s a reprise in spirit of the first movement and is, if anything, even more exciting! Grandeur, heroism, power: all are here in copious quantities. But it’s still not enough. I want more! How ironic is it that Serkin, almost 60 at the time of this recording, summons such power and energy while the young Kissin, not yet 30 when he recorded his take, is so, well, flaccid? No doubt the fact that this recording was made in one day at the same time the same forces were performing it live helps with the sense of unbridled excitement. The weighty if not ideally clear and spacious CBS sound certainly doesn’t hinder anything. Yes, this is a corker of a recording, and should be considered a must-listen for all devotees of this work.

    Jumping forward a couple decades finds Alfred Brendel and James Levine pairing up and working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a live 1983 recording. Out of the gates, Brendel is energetic and direct, with nary an annoying quirk to be heard. Levine is much more forceful in his accompaniment, and the CSO are more than up to the challenge. (Whenever serious power and flawless execution are required, calling on the ladies and gentlemen of the Windy City band makes good sense.) Brendel’s return sounds like his first in overall conception. The left-right section is very well done, very slightly favoring the right hand, and the Grand Flourish satisfies, and if perhaps a little something goes missing in the way of tonal variety, the overwhelming sense of urgency and drive make for worthwhile compensation. The second movement opens in reasonably attractive yet cool fashion. Brendel is in fine form as he carefully extracts simultaneously tender and etched notes, a bit of overemphasis at around 2’ notwithstanding. The long set of trills comes off well if perhaps just a tad to sharp in places, but in a live recording – and an early digital one at that – that’s to be expected. The third movement finds conductor and soloist in accord, Brendel belting out the powerful piano outbursts and Levine leading a suitably martial accompaniment. At times, the overall feeling can be a bit relentless and mechanical and even choppy, and the particular emphasis on forward drive drains a bit of color from the proceedings, but overall this is a very good version.

    “Just when is he going to get to Schnabel?” you might be wondering. Now seems like a good time. First up from this pianist is the first of his three commercial recordings. (I currently possess only the first and last, so the recording with Maestro Stock will be left for another time.) In this famous and important 1932 recording, Malcolm Sargent of course conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. This remarkable recording is required listening for fans of this work, for even if Schnabel may have been past his prime – which I’ve read but have no way of verifying – he still offers one of the best recordings committed to disc. His two most notable traits are swiftness and boldness; this is a risk-taking Emperor, and not one for the timid of heart or those who desire technical perfection. The opening of the piece amply demonstrates what this performance is all about: Schnabel bursts out of the gate, going for broke, swift and strong in his attack, perfectly willing to risk failure to convey the musical message. Sargent in turn offers perfect support. His band play strongly – fiercely, even – and hold nothing back. When Schnabel tackles the left-right passage, he speeds through it and offers strongly characterized playing for both parts. The passage immediately after is played fast, fast, fast, as though he wants to get to the next critical point he wants to make. When the Grand Flourish arrives, Schnabel takes his playing right to the edge, gleefully and defiantly playing on the precipice of failed technique without ever going over. How appropriate! From the start, the second movement sounds more steadfast than beautiful, as though acting to hold the musical line until the third movement arrives. Things are slowed a bit, and a few attractive sounds make their way to one’s ears, but the effect is similar to an old movie (like from, say, the ‘30s) where a brave soldier must bid adieu to his love before riding off to battle – all hesitate to be too emotionally demonstrative, but the feeling is there. The final movement brings with it a safety-last approach from Schnabel and more powerful and urgent playing from the band. More bold gestures and heated crescendos punctuate this grand finale. Yes, this is a great recording, no doubt. If you’ve not yet heard it, you must!

    About this time I was gettin’ a hankerin’ for some more Wilhelm Kempff. You know how it is. This time, I opted for his 1953 recording with Paul van Kempen and the Berlin Philharmonic. This time around, Kempff opens in surprisingly nimble and swift fashion, and reasonably powerfully, all while maintaining his inimitable tone. That right there would be enough to recommend this recording. But wait, there’s more! Kempen leads his Berliners in a solid and forceful accompaniment with lustrous strings. (The dry remastering cannot hide the truth!) He’s also smooth, but not Fluffy smooth. Kempff’s return contrasts with his opening: the style is more elegant than fiery, more regal. As things progress to the left-right split, Kempff sounds less assured than a couple decades before. The two parts don’t sound as distinctive, with some mushiness working its way in. It’s still superb, it’s just not as wonderful as before. As if to play against his general style, indeed, his nature, Kempff fairly pounds out some chords and works his way through some runs in (nearly) dazzling fashion at around the 11’ mark. The Grand Flourish sounds fine, with a good amount of heft, though methinks a bit o’ steel can be heard. A few minor reservations about the opening movement – though certainly not enough to dissuade one from listening again and again – gives way to unabashed admiration in the second movement. This is more Kempff’s speed to begin with, and here, at the peak of his artistry, Kempff really delivers. Kempen opens the movement in a beautifully forlorn way, with no risk of the sound drooping into depressive sentimentality. Kempff, well, he’s pretty much flawless. His every note is pregnant with poetic insight and truth, and each one exudes that almost impossible beauty only Kempff can muster. It’s so beautiful that one wonders if perhaps it’s too much for middle period Beethoven. It’s not! The entire movement floats along, an Elysian oasis amidst a grand, martial work. The third movement opens in powerful and pointed fashion, if not especially quickly. Truly vibrant playing from all lends a jovial air to the proceedings. A return to more serious things occurs at around the 6’ mark, but nothing can quite dispel the unreconstructed joy in music making. And that’s fine by me! Let’s just say this is another winner.

    After a second helping of Kempff, I wanted a second helping of Michelangeli, and so I pulled out his 1979 recording with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. One expects certain things in recordings from this stage of Michelangeli’s career, and all of those things are here: there is his mannered precision, where every aspect of the work has been thought through to the tiniest detail, and there is his unique, rich, ringing tone. Likewise, Giulini had developed some definable traits. A bit on the slow-ish side, he nonetheless lavishes his attention on every part of the score and extracts an exact, hefty, rich and meaty sound to satisfy even the most ravenous musical carnivore. So this seems to be a musical marriage made in heaven. It is! The opening is grand and massive, yet precise. Michelangeli is flawless both in the opening and in his return, where one can hardly but marvel at the sheer perfection of his right hand figurations. Likewise, his deft handling of the left-right split is nearly awe-inspiring. How can everything be played so flawlessly? The Grand Flourish, here at about 13’ in, is staggering: a wave of awesome aural delight washes over the listener as Michelangeli unloads power and articulation of the most Olympian kind. The second movement does something no other version dares. It veers into syrupy sentimentality, or at least the closest approximation of it that can occur in this work. The strings are rich, lustrous, and seductive, Michelangeli is haunting and mesmerizing. Though I generally don’t favor such an approach to music making, here I never want it to end. But it does. But that’s okay, because the third movement returns to broad, grand form, with satisfying weight and power. If perhaps not as electrifying as some recordings, and while certainly not as swift (this version easily passes the 40’ mark), the combined strengths are, in the words of Robert Palmer, simply irresistible. Adding to this allure is the wonderful sound: ‘tis rich, warm, and decidedly piano-centric, yet the clarity and wide dynamic range allows for everything to be heard as it should be. Yes, this is an Emperor for Emperor connoisseurs. Mannered and heavy it may be, but who cares? In a word, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

    It seems inconceivable that a survey of the Emperor would be even remotely worthwhile without considering Edwin Fischer’s wonderful recording with Wilhelm Furtwangler from 1951. So I did what needed to be done and plopped myself down in my La-Z-Boy® for a listen. Fischer offers a rich, rolling opening, graced with his lovely sound, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Furtwangler leads an old-world Furtwanglerian reading, flexible ‘n’ fiery in equal measure. Ed’s initial return may not epitomize pianistic strength and glory, but it does epitomize wistfully romantic pianism, with utter freedom and flexibility. Here and there, Furtwangler can be heard to underscore an especially intriguing passage or even to strongly emphasize something that others overlook. All the while, Fischer glides along gracefully. The left-right passage is not taken with great oomph, but rather benefits from unrestricted freedom, with the left-hand (yes, the left hand) taking off in flights of fancy. Later, when he embarks on the long chain of trills, there’s a heavenly, fluttering quality to them. (Angels’ flitting wings perhaps?) The Grand Flourish is not especially strong, but all I can write is Wow! The second movement ravishes, Furty’s softened, ever so slightly elongated phrasing married to Ed’s impeccably elegant, gorgeous tone grabbing the listener with tender mercy. Listen to the achingly beautiful, pronouncedly slow trill at around 2’15” – who can deny its magnificence? Listen to the reflective notes and chords that follow. Listen to the faster but humanely delicate trills just after 4’. Listen. Listen in wonder. One cannot fill in a programmatic blank. No! This music making surely seeks to stir the soul with the noblest feelings. The third movement finds Fischer playing to the very limit of his ability, with some signs of strain on occasion. Furtwangler brings the heat, pushing and pulling the orchestra this way and that, beseeching them to play with passion befitting this work. They do. If ever any evidence had to be offered to justify the conductor’s greatness, surely this recording could be, should be used. As the movement progresses to its ultimate conclusion, these two romantic souls deliver unto the listener an artistic gem of near perfect quality. The boomy, sometimes congested mono sound cannot detract from the music making. Nothing can.

    Moving on to the fourteenth review, I figured it was time for Gieseking! This time I went back a few years, to 1951, for his recording with Fluffy and the Philharmonia. To be honest, there’s not much to choose from between this and the version with Galliera as far as Gieseking’s playing is concerned. He’s a bit more restrained and not as brazenly nonchalant from time to time, but that’s about it. Of greater difference is Karajan’s conducting. This recording dates from the pre-BPO years, and the Macedonian wasn’t yet imposing his dictatorial style and producing his wall-of-sound approach to everything yet. In the outer movements, Fluffy leads his band in generating some real heat, but, at the appropriate times, he backs off. Detecting rough edges proves somewhat difficult – this recording harbingers things to come in that regard – but that hardly counts as a criticism. Perhaps the second movement is a bit too rich and thick, with a pronounced vibrato peeking out, but that’s the extent of the problems. Karajan doesn’t produce as beefy a sound as Galliera does later, either, I suppose. Really, the choice between the two comes down to sound. Early, diffuse stereo, or somewhat cramped, distant mono with some distortion. Hmm? Ultimately, I think I prefer the set with Galliera more now, but that’s subject to change. In any event, this is another fine version with Mr Gieseking.

    Moving back in time another decade sees the reappearance of Rudolf Serkin, this time paired with Bruno Walter and what would eventually morph into the New York Philharmonic in the Andante transfer. Listen past the crackle and some hefty rumble, and one hears a younger Serkin tackling this piece in a different way. Here, he sounds less overwhelmingly powerful, and more youthful and vibrant, and certainly better equipped technically. Walter, somewhat unexpectedly, leads a remarkably light on its feet reading bursting with energy. (There’s an amusing anecdote in the typically good Andante liner notes about how Walter initially favored a slower approach.) Serkin’s return again sounds lighter, and more graceful, than his later recording, and he plays with an endearing legato that contrasts nicely with his usual, sharper sound. But man, can he hammer it home when needed! The left-right portion is breathless and urgent, an exemplar of dazzling virtuosity deployed solely in the service of music. Likewise, the Grand Flourish impresses greatly. The second movement opens in suitably lovely fashion, any hint of syrupy anything avoided. Serkin plays the long trills with cool, crystalline, unblemished detachment, and if perhaps the tender sound and imagery evoked in his recording with Bernstein cannot be heard, the whole thing jells most gratifyingly. The third movement nearly leaps out of the speakers, the decades since the recording hardly a barrier, and both soloist and band steam ahead with a vigor lacking in some other very good accounts. Yes, Serkin can produce a harder, slicing tone from time to time, and he misfires rather noticeably at about 4’45”, but these mean nothing; no, this propulsive concluding movement is as addictive as smack, I tell you! Another winner.

    Since the good folks at Andante saw fit to pair two recordings of the Emperor on one disc, I saw fit to listen to the other one: Artur Schnabel’s 1947 recording with Alceo Galliera and the Philharmonia. (Man, they show up a lot.) I prefer this transfer to the Dante transfer, so that made the decision to listen to back-to-back recordings even easier. And what a phenomenal recording this is! Schnabel again bursts into action, fleet, bold, and strong, his rounded tone more apparent in this better sounding recording. Galliera, as when accompanying Gieseking, leads some good ‘n’ beefy support, though things sound a bit fleeter here, and his attentiveness to each phrase, each instrumental entry, is quite remarkable. He still goes for a rollicking good time, but here serious ideas temper the giddiness some. Schnabel’s return is more graceful, more contemplative than before – but it’s still quick and vigorous. It’s just older and wiser. The left-right section is neither as clear nor as cleanly executed as fifteen years previously – indeed, the beginning sounds a bit muddled – but hey, he can still turn it on and he still has Beethoven’s number. The second movement opens snappily enough, and then the wise old pianist slows things down a bit, so as to impart upon the listener something of import. His playing is somber, almost sad, as if reminiscing about something – lost love, perhaps? Defeat? – but it never succumbs to self-pity. He plays as though merely remembering because he wants to remember, just accepting that it – whatever it is – happened. It just is. The solemnity doesn’t last long, though. Schnabel returns to bold, risk-taking form in the conclusion, though not as ably as with Sargent. The movement at times sounds as though it is a grand, heroic march, and can slip into an episodic sound world every once in a while, but this is more an observation than a criticism. It’s still sublime. Indeed, even with its flaws, it’s pretty much impossible to choose between this and the 1932 recording. Best just to have both, I think.

    After revisiting three pianists in a row, I figured it was time for someone new. So I settled on Rudolf Firkusny in his 1957 recording with William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. As Firkusny fans know – and you are a Firkusny fan, right? – his pianism is generally a model of fluidity, grace, and Apollonian sensibility, though that sensibility can take on a heated texture occasionally. Well, here he does his thing. Energetic, swift, and fluid he most certainly is, and while restrained, he takes his Apollonian approach just about as far as one can before tipping into Dionysian ecstasy. It’s mighty fine stuff. Steinberg leads his band in a fine blend of hefty and athletic playing, speedy where necessary, but packing a wallop when that’s what’s called for. Firkusny’s return offers more of what he offered at the outset. Supremely articulate, with a firm but never sharp staccato touch, he sparkles. The left-right split slightly favors the right hand, though both parts are meticulously played. The Grand Flourish possesses plenty of power. Further on, his slow playing offers a nice blend of introspection and tenderness. When speed and precision are called for, he delivers, as with the superb trills. The second movement opens with lilting, romantic strings capturing one’s ear before Firkusny enters with a direct, unsentimental sound, his playing softened a bit, too sharp to be mushy and too refined to be steely. The playing evokes neither imagery nor any philosophical ideas – it’s straightforward through and through. Sometimes a clean approach, unencumbered by extra musical baggage is welcome. This is one of those times. As the third movement opens, all involved seem to agree that speed is the order of the moment. Firkusny dashes off the notes with genuinely exciting zeal, and Steinberg and the orchestra follow his lead. Throw in some excellent early stereo sound, with plenty of weight and an overall pleasant sound (though the strings can sound just a tad harsh in the loudest passages) and one has another fine version. It doesn’t rise to the level of the best out there, but there’s more than enough to enjoy time and again.

    What better way to follow Firkusny than with Casadesus? For the second go-round, I opted for his 1955 recording with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. This recording represents a marked step up from the one with Rosbaud. At the start, Casadesus almost literally flies across the keyboard, and when Mitropoulos leads the band in its post-soloist outburst, it is with a scorching white heat that never subsides. Casadesus’ return has everything but that last little bit of power (and he’s missing so little that’s it’s not really missed). The left-right split, the Grand Flourish, the pounding chords, the runs, the trills: all are amazing. Casadesus is in top form. And I swear I could see smoke emanating from my speakers every time Mitropoulos takes over for more than 30 seconds. His intensity generates some true visceral excitement and borders on the downright fierce at times. Both soloist and orchestra hammer out the piece, though neither veers into harshness. The only downside to this approach is that nuance and color go missing. Yes, it can thrill, but where are the other elements that one craves? The second movement maintains a swift overall approach, though it’s obviously slowed down and softened a bit. Casadesus shows that he can play both relatively quickly and still produce a nice tonal range and variegated colors and even a hint, though just a hint, of tenderness. But with the approach that’s taken, neither imagery nor ideals are evoked. It’s just good music. Well, it’s a little more than good. The third movement is not quite as forceful and intense as the opening, but only by a matter of degree. The involved forces use this to produce sonic grandeur, and that fits the piece quite well. If you want to hear a piece with some smokin’ playing, this one has it, and while it is very good, the things it lacks keep me from saying it’s a top contender. That written, I ain’t getting rid of my copy!

    About this time I figured it was Wilhelm Kempff’s turn again. His final recording of the work with Ferdinand Leitner and the Berlin Philharmonic from 1961 is the least of his three commercial efforts, and has never been a first choice for me. Something strange happens every time I hear it, though: I like it. At least twice I’ve had it on my list of “questionable” discs to possibly sell off, and both times, after hearing it anew, I found more than enough to justify keeping it. The same thing happened this time. (It’s been permanently taken off the “questionable” list.) The problems are evident from the start. Kempff’s opening is grand but not especially quick, alert, or forceful. But there’s always his tone. As the first movement progresses, Kempff’s limitations are apparent: the left-right split is not as distinctive as before, the Grand Flourish is labored, and a number of times flurries of notes sound mushy and approximated rather than cleanly played. Yet, when he plays the trills that show up everywhere, there’s some magic, and when something softer is needed, Kempff shines. Languidness and inarticulation in the fast ‘n’ furious sections are offset by wonderful insights in the piano and softer sections. Take the second movement: Kempff really shines here in all three of his recordings for the Yellow Label. His delicate touch and his ability to find at least a dozen gradations of sound between p and pp set him apart from the crowd; it’s just a wonder to hear. And he seems to inject some bucolic warmth and humor into the proceedings, as if to say “I’m old, I don’t care what you whipper-snappers say, this is what the piece means to me now.” Defining that Kempffian magic ultimately proves impossible. But it’s real, and it’s on display here. The third movement suffers from the same shortcomings as the first movement, but who cares? Kempff’s playing is still worth hearing. Throughout the work, Leitner ably leads the band in appropriate accompaniment. He turns up the heat in the third movement, but otherwise he’s on the mellower side of heroic. So, this is a good version, and one to keep, but also one to listen to only occasionally. Perhaps on a drizzly Sunday while sipping tea.

    Now it’s curiosity time. I write of Clifford Curzon’s 1971 recording with Pierre Boulez (!) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Truth to tell, I bought this to hear Boulez conduct Beethoven more than for Curzon. More truth to tell, it’s not very good. To start with, the sound is hazy, diffuse, dim, and distant, which, given its age, is a shame. But even poor sound can be ignored if enough nourishing artistry is on offer. Alas, that’s not the case. Curzon opens quickly and elegantly enough, but he’s neither especially dazzling nor strong nor insightful. Boulez leads a clear and transparent accompaniment, as one might expect, but it lacks that white heat that characterizes so many of his recordings from this era. It sounds, well, dutiful, as if he’s not excited to be conducting the work. Curzon’s return is boring an uneventful. The left-right section is bland and strained, the Grand Flourish rushed and not well controlled, and a number of passages come off as either labored or disinterested, or both. All the while Boulez conducts ably but no more, except for the very end where he really hammers the movement out. The second movement fares relatively better, with Boulez typically stripping away any and all sentimentality and Curzon playing in a more relaxed if soft and aloof manner. It’s ho-hum. The third movement is nearly a disaster. Curzon botches the opening, dropping notes, missing notes, and generally making a jumble of things. Boulez comes to his rescue with more sure-footed and powerful conducting, but he still sounds as though he’s not at home with the music. Curzon sounds as though he’s tired as the movement wears on, with slip and goof following slip and goof, and a few cringe-inducing moments showing up in the mix. When it’s done it’s a relief for everyone – soloist, conductor, orchestra, and listener. This is a dud. I’ve already sold it.

    Time for another curiosity. This time I write of Benno Moiseiwitsch’s 1963 recording with Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This recording fares better, but it’s hardly a top choice. To start, Moiseiwitsch opens in refined yet energetic fashion, his slips not masking his desire to play heroically. Sargent leads a reading similar to the one he made 31 years before: fast, hard, and urgent. He stirs one’s passions; he brings out the heroism inherent in the piece. He’s a reliable old hand. Moiseiwitsch, another reliable old hand, continues to suffer from unreliable old hands. His left-right split, while not emphasizing either part, is technically shaky, and his Flourish isn’t so Grand. Despite all of this, his heart is in the right place, and he does his best to bring some passion to his part, and he succeeds. He shows that technical infallibility is not needed to bring out some of the highlights of this work, however much they ultimately help. As has been the case for other pianists beyond their dexterous prime, the second movement proves more amenable to Moiseiwitsch. His restrained, somewhat aloof, aristocratic style fits well here, and if he doesn’t exactly make one think of soldiers and their women or other such images, his eminently tasteful approach is its own reward. He never overplays anything, nor does he underplay anything. It’s all just right. Sargent has the good sense to temper the orchestra’s output to the perfect degree to aid the great pianist. Come the third movement, Moiseiwitsch, like Curzon, makes some big blunders. The opening of the third is simply beyond his ability to execute properly, but in spirit and emotion, Moiseiwitsch satisfies far more; he may be straining, but, as noted before, his heart is in the right place. Sargent digs in and encourages his band to bring the heat. And so it is to the end. For all its failings, this performance still stirs the imagination, so I cannot dismiss it entirely. I can’t say it deserves too many listens, either.

    As if due to divine intervention, or, alternatively, speedy service from Buywell, Friedrich Gulda’s 1971 recording with Horst Stein and the Vienna Philharmonic made its way to my grubby paws in time for inclusion in this survey. Within a few hours of opening this precious box, I spun this work. I had already worked my way through the Op 2 sonatas, was mightily impressed by them, and so I had high expectations for this recording. Alas, my expectations were too high. Don’t get me wrong, this is good, but I was expecting great. At the start, Gulda plays a bit slowly, though he quickly picks up speed. As is his wont, every note is precisely and cleanly delivered, though here some sound too measured. Stein opens in heavy, thick, but still reasonably fast fashion, which fits the overall conception. Gulda’s return is too measured (methinks a pattern can be detected), and the left-right split and runs, while all well executed suffer the same fate. Self-consciousness permeates Gulda’s playing. At least the Grand Flourish sounds fine. The second movement follows the same pattern. It opens in an almost elegiac manner, and while Gulda’s initial playing gives each note its due, the whole thing almost goes Largo, not that that’s bad, it’s just not ideal. As the movement progresses, Gulda indulges in some nicely nuanced playing, and Stein leads an able if hardly great accompaniment. The final movement is generally more successful, with tempi more to my liking (brisk but not breakneck) and a good deal of oomph. (Oomph is underrated if you ask me.) The orchestra play appropriately, too. Unfortunately, not a great deal sticks in the memory. Decca’s sound is strangely sub-par here: the piano has a steely, cutting sound, and the orchestra is not as clear, weighty, and warm as one might expect from this label; indeed, it’s a bit wiry at times. So, if Gulda and company offer a few thought-provoking moments, they don’t offer a standard-setting recording. (But damn his sonatas are good!)

    Twenty-two versions down, two to go. As with the survey of Mozart’s D Minor concerto, I saved the best for last, and for this work that means Maurizio Pollini. I decided to go ahead and listen in chronological order to his two DG accounts, with the 1978 recording with Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic coming first, the 1993 recording with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic coming second. (There’s at least one additional recording out there – a pirate job from the 60s with Abbado and an orchestra that slips my mind at present.)

    I’ll just come out and say it: Pollini’s recording with Bohm is my favorite. Has been for years. Will be for years to come. All of the preceding versions were really only tested to see how close they come to measuring up to this one. Every one, no matter how good, misses something. I’ll start with the opening, if you don’t mind. It’s basically perfect. Pollini’s supremely heroic, powerful, graceful, and articulate opening just gets me every time. His control is truly awesome (and this is a live recording), his command of every aspect of the piece total. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it all is that it is not especially fast. A number of others are notably faster, but no other so totally owns it. When Bohm gets to unleash his fellow Wieners, it is with remarkable heft, power, and biting warmth. Yes, biting warmth! There’s some muscle and sinew at work, and Bohm highlights point after point, but he never lets anything sound brash or rough. Thus, biting warmth. (Of course, the Vienna strings help a lot in this regard.) Pollini’s return is flawless. Flawless. I’ll leave it at that. What’s so remarkable is how gracefully he transitions to playing the accompaniment. No ego is involved. No desire to dazzle. But when he comes back to the fore, it is with a magnificent roar. The left-right split, well, I’m sure you can guess that it’s perfect, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s perfect. And it’s phenomenal. It’s as though two Herculean pianists, with steel fingers covered with velvet gloves, are married in mind and spirit and play their parts with equal power and purpose. At around ten minutes or so, as he must do chord progressions up and down the ivories, Pollini manages to explode when appropriate, but he always keeps it under precise control, and as he plays diminuendo, it is equally precise. The Grand Flourish is a swelling torrent of precisely executed notes, each one unleashing a wave of musical heat. Indeed, it is Pollini’s playing that prompted me to name the Grand Flourish the Grand Flourish! All throughout this movement, indeed the entire work, Pollini displays his sovereign mastery. Arguably at his peak, able to play anything with ease, he opts not to overwhelm with vulgar virtuosity, but rather to subsume his personality, ego, and formidable technique to the service of the music. Just because he can play fast – dizzyingly so – he doesn’t: he does what the music demands. This is why he’s one of my favorite artists. Anyway, the second movement opens with a sort of cool nostalgia, and them Vienna strings, man they deliver the goods. Listen to that aching vibrato. Pollini is measured, but perfectly so. Each note is given its due, and Bohm sternly yet judiciously coaxes the Vienna band to give their all. This is pure, abstract, absolute music, devoid of imagery, but loaded with Beethovenian greatness. The finale opens with miraculous power and clarity – but again not too much speed. Here and there, Bohm leads his orchestra to play with a mighty corporate wallop, delivering just the right amount of oomph each and every time. Are there any chinks in the formidable musical armor? Well, yes, I suppose so. A few times – perhaps three or four – Pollini’s tone become a smidgeon (that is, exactly 7.31245786% more than ideal) too hard. That’s it. That’s the extent of my criticism. This is not only a great recording, it is one of the greatest recordings ever of anything! In other words, I like it.

    The second recording is something of an anti-climax after the recording with Bohm. Don’t get me wrong, the Pollini-Abbado team has produced numerous superb, even great recordings – Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Schoenberg – and this recording of the E Flat is great, it’s just not as great as the earlier recording. Why, exactly? After all, Pollini’s command is as absolute as before, the Berlin Philharmonic play as well as their Austrian counterparts, and Abbado has a sure hand. I think it’s this: everything is a bit too detached, a bit too cool, a bit too calculated. Take any part of any movement, and the two versions are similar, but there is a certain indefinable something that makes this one not quite as good. In the absence of the recording with Bohm, this would be my favorite, but since the Bohm recording is out there, this is my second favorite. That ain’t too shabby.

    Whew! A cool two dozen recordings have been briefly (hah!) summarized, all to arrive at a conclusion I already knew. But it’s the journey that’s important. As with any great piece of music, no one interpretation can possibly possess the whole truth. Surely the world is large enough for romanticized versions of this work, for mechanistic versions, for crystalline versions, for unremittingly serious versions, indeed for any number of versions. Even though I listened to two dozen versions, I really feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface. Think of the names missing from my summary. Surely some of them have something to offer. I will find out as time goes by. Anyway, as it stands now, Maurizio Pollini sets the pace. But Serkin, Schnabel, Michelangeli, Gieseking, and (Edwin) Fischer all offer invaluable insights. (Annie, wherefore art thine recording? Please, there must be at least a radio relay somewhere!) All will be played and played again until I grow tired of the work or until I die. I’m guessing it will be the latter. All I can say now is: More!

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: The Emperor

    [The below post was recently written as a follow-up to the initial post. More will follow in coming months.]


    It’s been long enough. It’s been almost four months since I heard a new version of this work. Four months! Clearly I needed to rectify this situation. So I snapped up another four versions, of the dozen plus I want, and decided to give ‘em a listen. I’ve actually had these recordings sitting on the to-hear pile for a couple months, but I decided to go on my sonata binge before giving them a whirl. Well, my binge is temporarily halted, so I figured now was a good time. The four versions in question were all opportunistic purchases, and were made with no specific goal in mind, so I have added third versions from Walter Gieseking and Rudolf Serkin to my collection, but I’ve finally added Emil Gilels and Wilhelm Backhaus, too. With such a small sampling I decided to listen chronologically, so . . .

    That meant start with Walter Gieseking’s 1934 recording with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. Gieseking was arguably at his peak in the 30s, and this recording only reinforces that notion. At the opening, Gieseking flies across the keyboard with breathtaking speed and agility. His style is restrained and “classical,” but he puts on a show. No other version I’ve heard is quite so fast. Fast, too, is Walter in his accompaniment. Whatever misgivings over speed he may have had a decade later with Serkin, he certainly seems to not have them here. The VPO are in fine form, with the winds sounding especially good. When Gieseking returns, he plays fast and light, his fingers gliding over the ivories. A bit later on, in the left-right split, he plays with dazzling speed and is notably articulate with both parts. The Grand Flourish is again fast, fast, fast, and Gieseking seems to play with suitable weight, though the ancient recording makes that a bit hard to know for sure. The second movement keeps with the light and relatively swift approach, and has a nice, old-time sound, with portamento and rubato one would have a hard time imagining today. Gieseking plays the whole movement a little too literally, infusing little in the way of emotion, but he does play with exceptional gracefulness. The final movement is similar to the opener: it’s all about speed and agility, with less focus on power and an heroic approach. As a performance, this is a nice one to have to be reminded of how things once were, but it doesn’t supercede Gieseking’s stereo recording with Galliera. The Archipel transfer I have is remarkably clear and clean, but it sounds as though too much surface noise was eliminated, with all that implies. But still, this is a success.

    The next recording is substantially more than that. Rudolf Serkin’s 1950 recording with Eugene Ormandy and his Philly band is one of the most amazing recordings of the work I’ve heard. Right from the outset it is clear that this is a great recording. Serkin opens in commanding, almost overwhelming fashion (the front-and-center piano sound aiding that feeling), playing with immense strength and speed. Ormandy leads an accompaniment in complete sympathy with the soloist; no wimpy, lush sound here – it’s muscular and taut. Serkin’s return offers more of the same as before. The left-right passage is played with such awesome assurance that only Pollini can compare, and the Grand Flourish is the very epitome of the big, strong, powerful piano crescendo. But the relatively recessed orchestra threatens to overpower even the mighty Serkin at times! The opening movement is just awesome. The second movement once again shows Serkin’s penchant for a slow approach. Here, the movement takes just shy of nine minutes, and as with Bernstein, Serkin slows way up and backs off a lot to deliver an almost gentle, lovely sound. His long trills do have just a hint of edge to them, but that only serves to make the movement sound better. Add to this some wonderful playing by the band, including some fine Philly fiddlin’ to open, and one has a superb rendition of the movement. While this recording doesn’t evoke the same type of imagery as the Bernstein recording – it’s presented more in an absolute, abstract way, or at least that’s how I heard it – it’s still effective. The third movement is back to the form of the opener. Both Serkin and the orchestra play with power and speed, punching right through to the end. Is it perhaps just a bit much, threatening to tip over into aggression? Nah. This is admittedly a muscular, he-man approach to the work, but the relentless forward drive and high-impact, high-intensity approach all serve to reinforce the work’s heroic nature. The lean, dry yet relatively hefty mono sound helps matters. Rockin’!

    It was about time I heard Gilels in this work. I’ve read and heard almost uniformly good or great things about Gilels’ late 50s recordings of the Fourth and Fifth with Leopold Ludwig, so when I was able to snap up the Testament reissue from BRO, I did. It was with very high expectations that I approached the work. Um, well, let’s just say that my expectations weren’t fulfilled. The work opens in a solid, articulate but not flashy manner. It’s big and grand in conception, to be sure, but also a touch restrained. Ludwig leads a big, weighty, rich sounding accompaniment, a feeling aided by the somewhat diffuse, low-end rich recording. Gilels’ return is tasteful, but a bit too restrained and light. The left-right split is superbly done, Gilels’ masterly pianism easily handling the demands, and as he plays the chord progression at just after 10’, his unassailable technique is clear to hear. The Grand Flourish, too, is impressive. But these end up being highlights in a somewhat mundane performance. But that’s better than the second movement. Gilels plays v e r y s l o w. It all sounds too deliberate, and though Gilels plays with fine tone and control, it is just too slow. It saps the movement of what it needs: feeling. Ludwig and the orchestra, obliged to accompany the soloist, play as well as they can. The funny thing is that this recording only takes about twenty seconds longer than Serkin’s, but it sounds twice as long. I hate to admit, but it’s a bit soporific sounding. The third movement more or less just reinforces all that came before; it’s “big” and “grand” and well executed, but there’s precious little excitement. I suppose one could say that this is a more refined recording, but it’s really not. There are other, more refined versions that generate more excitement and energy. This isn’t a bad recording, mind you, but it’s certainly a relative disappointment, and not one I’m likely to play very often.

    That leads me to the last version in this mini-survey: Wilhelm Backhaus’ 1961 recording with Carl Schuricht and the RTSI Orchestra. I just recently got Backhaus playing the sonatas, and found his playing to be among the very best. I’ve also read good things about this recording, so I was hoping for a winner. And I almost got one. Backhaus was in his late 70s when he gave this performance, so allowances need to be made for his playing. At the beginning it’s no so obvious: Backhaus opens with remarkable strength and clarity. Schuricht does his part by leading a taut, dramatic accompaniment, with some especially pronounced brass playing. But these positive aspects cannot erase the negative aspects. First, the band simply is not world-class. There’s some sloppiness in places, and they sound nowhere near as accomplished as the best bands. Second, Backhaus’ age does make itself apparent. The left-right split, while well done overall, is smudged and a bit murky; the Grand Flourish is grand, but a bit reckless sounding. These are relatively minor distractions, but distractions nonetheless. One strength that Backhaus brings, for those who like his pianism, is his somewhat mercurial nature. He plays some parts with notable feeling, others more coldly. He’ll play fast and reasonably sure, then, for no reason other than whimsy it seems, he’ll vary tempi and dynamics to underscore a point. Even so, the second movement comes across as a bit cold and too incisive at times. I know Backhaus is capable of more beautiful, touching playing, so I was hoping for more. Taking the recording as it is, the second movement is fine if not a world-beater. The final movement once again finds all involved playing with strength and drive, but Backhaus’ playing fails him. At just after 2’ in, he plays a sloppily and haphazardly for about 15-20 seconds. This is repeated a few times throughout the movement. Schuricht’s conducting earns nothing but praise. His conducting is on fire at times, though the orchestra is not able to really do his bidding the whole time. So, this is a mixed recording. At its best, it has much to offer, but there are too many problems for me to say this is one of the best. (The Mozart great G minor symphony is the real reason to get this disc.) I must hear some more Backhaus in this work, but I’ll need to go a bit further back in his recording career to get the one for me.

    So, four new recordings yielded one astounding recording – the Serkin – and three others that at least shed some new light on the work. I’d say the Gieseking is probably the second best of the bunch, and will definitely be heard again, and the other two were interesting to hear if not destined for the high-frequency listening pile. Looks like I need some more recordings.

  3. #3
    Captain of Water Music
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    Time to revisit this one.

    I started off this batch of four recordings with the best sounding recording of the Emperor I’ve ever heard. Hell, it’s one of the best sounding recordings of anything I’ve ever heard. I refer to Ikuyo Nakamichi’s 2004 recording with Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen on RCA / BMG Japan. Really, the sound is superb, but more on that shortly. To the music: the Allegro opens in suitably grand, sweeping fashion, which is somewhat surprising given the slightly scaled back size of the orchestra. Nakamichi enters in similar fashion. She takes a somewhat broad tempo and plays in a deliberate fashion, as she often does, but in the runs and flourishes, she plays with greater speed and dexterity. One constant throughout, from both pianist and orchestra, is amazing clarity. From Nakamichi that manifests itself in amazingly clear part playing and inner voices, and from the band that means one can hear not only each individual section with clarity, but almost each individual instrument at times. At times the clarity is startling and revelatory – as with the horns early in the first movement, or the bassoons later on. This clarity also translates to a somewhat light take on the work, at least when compared to heavier readings from Pollini / Bohm or Serkin / Bernstein, to name two gooduns. Anyway, Nakamichi’s return after the bravura second orchestral passage is graceful and quite formal and proper, and just a bit metallic in louder passages. The first main passage where the left and right hands play boldly different music comes off superbly, Nakamichi delivering both parts with superb clarity and control, even if it doesn’t flow quite as much as I’d like. The series of trills after 9’ are sweet and tender, which may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but they sure sound nice. The bold ascending then descending runs are well played but too stolid to be ideal, but Nakamichi redeems herself in the Grand Flourish, delivering swelling, powerful, if slightly too sculpted playing. The second left-right split passage is every bit as good as the first, and she and the band cap everything off well enough. The Adagio un poco moto offers something new in my experience. Yes, the strings start off in lovely and amazingly clear fashion, and if the playing isn’t the most emotionally evocative around, it’ll more than do. No, it’s the soloist, that’s what’s different and unique. She enters slowly, deliberately, and plays with unapologetic beauty. Heavens, that tender bass line underlying the gently singing right hand is something to marvel at. It’s so, so, well, feminine. Now that’s a word I would have never thought to apply to this of all works, even in the slow movement. But I must. And I’m happy to do so. (And then that tender little trill, how does she make it sound that way?) As is Nakamichi’s wont, she plays the whole work in a formal, nearly reverential, sonically sculpted fashion. Here it works. Nakamichi comes out swinging in the concluding Rondo, showing that she clearly can play with great energy and drive if she so chooses, and when Järvi leads the band, it’s with a snazzy, jazzy beat, if you will, that maintains sufficient musical tension and beef through to the end. Some nicely terraced dynamics from the orchestra and more heated playing from Nakamichi on occasion bring the work to a satisfying conclusion. (You may notice that I haven’t mentioned Järvi too much. That’s because he plays the role of accompanist superbly, supporting the soloist in her conception.) Now back to that fabulous sound: it’s fabulous! The instrumental clarity, timbral accuracy, “spatial” precision, dynamic range, and focus are all amazing. Yes, this is a multi-miked recording, and yes some things are clearer than they would be in concert, but I don’t care. If only all recordings sounded this good. And that’s the CD layer. The SACD layer may be better yet (I have machine that’ll play SACDs, but it doesn’t sound as good as my main CD player), and there’s a DVD version, though not with North American or European regional settings, so one can watch and listen if one has the right kit. It may very well be worth it.

    Next up is another version from 2004: Yukio Yokoyama’s Sony recording with the Japan Chamber Orchestra wherein he assumes both the soloist and conductor roles. The ensemble is even smaller than the Bremen band, and as such, the work takes on a smaller sound. Think of it as Mozart’s Coronation concerto on (diluted) ‘roids. Right away this becomes clear; the Allegro opens with plenty of pep and energy, but it doesn’t exactly sound grand. Yokoyama himself dashes across the keyboard in a most athletic manner, nothing seeming to challenge him. Something else becomes apparent. The more distantly miked recording makes the whole thing sound more coherent and jelled, as opposed to the still coherent but more detail-oriented Nakamichi recording. There’s also less detail, but more bloom during crescendos. (You can’t have everything.) There’s also a sort of mechanical feel to the playing; everyone is very well drilled and at times seem to be playing with no specifically important reason to do so. The orchestral interlude prior to Yokoyama’s return has a corporate efficiency even George Szell would admire, and then Yokoyama’s return itself is light and athletic and precise, with damned good trills. (These are merely a taste of what’s to come.) He comes across as very much the cool straight man. Think of him as a lightweight Maurizio Pollini with hints of charm. Anyway, as things progress, Yokoyama plays the swelling crescendos with satisfying power, and the first left-right passage is dexterously dashed off, even if it’s not especially clear. (That has more to do with the recording than the playing.) One thing is certain: Yokoyama’s playing always flows. Another thing is just as certain: his trills after 9’ are simply breathtaking. They are awesomely fast and precise, almost as though a classically trained machine is pounding them out. Few players approach him here; fewer still match him. The Grand Flourish takes on a virtuosic air, with effortless dexterity married to a decent level of power and some nice touches where he pushes the music. The second left-right passage comes off better than the first, and the movement winds down very well. The Adagio is somewhat perplexing. The lean sound precludes any richly romantic feeling, and the overall sense is of a soloist and orchestra trying to evoke some idealized sense of romanticism that they’ve read about rather than experienced first hand. It’s too precise and contrived. Yokoyama himself plays very well, but at times seems to be going through the motions. The concluding Rondo is pretty much in line with the opener. Yokoyama plays the youthful virtuoso, the JCO the youthful accompanists. It’s clean, it’s high energy, it’s vigorous, but to what end? Immaculate execution without inspiration is, well, it’s not inspirational, that’s for sure. Overall, this is a nice, clean, energetic effort that doesn’t really have much to say. That’s fine, it’s the earlier concertos in the cycle where this team does its best work.

    Moving back in recorded time fifteen years, I opted to give Radu Lupu and Zubin Mehta’s recording with the Israel Philharmonic a shot. It’s not half bad. It also ain’t the greatest. Not that one could guess that in the opening seconds: the Allegro opens in nearly breathless yet beefy fashion, the IPO really turning it on. Lupu’s entrance is fast and vigorous, but lacking just a little something in the grandeur department. The 70s analog Decca sound is weighty and substantial, and that adds to the allure, though it also has some spotlighting and tubby bass, which detract ever so slightly from the proceedings. (Very slightly.) The orchestra plays very well, and if they can’t quite match up to the Berliners or the Chicagoans, the orchestral interlude is still quite satisfying. Lupu’s return is where questions arise. Oh, he plays splendidly, that much is certain, he just plays a bit “small.” The compensation is that the playing is more direct, more intimate, but it doesn’t perfectly suit the music. It does allow for nice dynamic contrasts, both for Lupu alone, and when compared to the orchestra. Both left-right passages sound somewhat disappointing in that they lack ideal clarity and the left hand playing lacks enough oomph. (And I need my oomph.) The Grand Flourish, though is satisfying, with Lupu turning on the power and speed. The Adagio ends up being the highlight of the concerto. The strings start things off rather nicely, though the plumy bass detracts a bit, and the orchestra creates a nice setting for Lupu’s sensitive, tender playing. Here the protagonist is vulnerable, he exposes his heart. He contemplates the tumult that came before, and the tumult that is sure to come, questioning his worthiness to face the challenge. Then he decides, triumphantly, “Yes! I can! I must!” Lupu doesn’t evoke images of romantic heroism in the fashion of, say, Schnabel, but rather he is a chivalrous soul, contemplating his value and his role. It’s all so very chaste and idealized, and it is quite lovely. Throughout, Mehta lends ideal support for Lupu’s vision, with the winds playing an especially nice role. Alas, the Rondo ends things on a less than ideal note. Sure, there’s energy and (finally!) scale and oomph, but it’s all too restrained. I need more drive, more energy, more focus, more purpose. Everything is played well enough – no major gaffes sully the proceedings – but it’s nothing special, either. Had the last movement been better, I would surely rate this recording higher – but not a whole lot higher. As with the Yokoyama cycle, Lupu’s best work is earlier on.

    That leaves but one recording for this go-round: Claudio Arrau’s 1964 recording with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips. This well known warhorse recording just never made its way into my collection until recently, and I’m glad it did. But I’m not smitten. In some respects, it’s all there: The grand scale. The serious but not reverential feeling. The wondrous tone from Arrau, the glorious sound from the band. The not only able but excellent accompaniment from Haitink. The good early 60s sound. But something is missing, too, at least for me. The Allegro, well, both the orchestra and soloist open in grand – hell, regal – fashion. The oversized piano draws all attention to the soloist, and he’s on target. His playing is tonally and dynamically supple, yet Arrau is able to muster awesome power during crescendos. The music is played at a fine pace: it’s Allegro, so it’s somewhat quick, but not rushed. And them strings and them horns and them winds, boy do they sound nice. When Arrau returns after the orchestral interlude, he delivers such a wonderful, tonally supple trill that one must sit with a smile on one’s face. The left-right split passages suffer a bit from lack of clarity and a slightly lagging left hand. The Grand Flourish, though, is grand indeed, just like the opening. The Adagio, well, it’s glorious. The strings are the best of this small bunch, and Haitink ably creates a mellow, wistful environment in which Arrau can do his thing. When the great Chilean enters, it is gently, with superb low-end variety and nuance, and with refinement to spare. (Ah, is that it?) As he lets the music unfold, his tasteful approach, his gorgeous legato, his sense of idealized romantic feeling really make the music sing. (Maybe that?) And the orchestra do what needs to be done to let Arrau work his magic. The concluding Rondo is magisterial and powerful and graceful and heroic and even beefy, though, as with the Lupu recording, I could have used more energy and drive. So what is it? Perhaps it’s this: I find the whole thing too refined. Yes, too refined. I’m not dismissing the achievement of anyone involved – this is a superb recording, and mostly because of Arrau – but it lacks those traits I tend to prefer, and that means that this is a second-tier recording for me. (Keep in mind that this tier includes some other fantastic recordings.) For me, when I listen to Beethoven generally, and to this work specifically, I prefer either a reading of overwhelming command and control – like the Pollini / Bohm – or one that’s muscular and aggressive and biting – like the Serkin / Ormandy ditty – and thus I’m always prone to discount recordings like this one at least a bit. But it’s still good. Damned good.

    And so another batch has been devoured, and not one ultimate contender is to be heard. Don’t get me wrong, the Arrau recording is superb and makes a very welcomed addition to my expanding collection, and it will receive repeated spins. The Nakamichi recording is also quite good, given its limitations, and will earn repeated spins just so I can hear how glorious a recording can be. The other two recordings also have something to offer, just less. I’ll be keeping all four recordings in my collections. (Well, three are part of sets that I’m more interested in for other works anyway, so I wouldn’t ditch those three even if I hated ‘em.) But none really hit the bull’s-eye. Maybe next time.
    Last edited by Todd; Oct-08-2006 at 02:46.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  4. #4
    Captain of Water Music
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    Straight to the top tier goes Julius Katchen’s 1963 Emperor with Piero Gamba and the LSO. It’s just that simple. And it’s apparent from the opening seconds. A forceful orchestra underpins, or rather would underpin, the whole affair but for Katchen’s thundering entry, heavy ‘n’ burly in the lower register, powerfully projected, and recorded in a most enticing front-and-center style. He offers some amazingly strong, deep-key playing while maintaining far more than adequate articulation. Well, that’s when he needs to. It doesn’t take very long for Katchen to show he’s no one-trick pony (and if he were, this recording would still be among the best!), for he slows up and softens things just so, in the midst of an orchestral free-for-all, just ‘cause he can. And should. When the orchestra takes over, Piero Gamba shows himself to favor an unabashedly physical approach to the music, taking it at a fast pace and imbuing it with world class oomph. It’s as if he turns the entire big band into a heavyweight contender and throws pulverizing punch after crushing blow. Subtle it may not be, but viscerally exciting it certainly is. The strings, particularly the low strings, sound a bit scratchy and scrappy, but that’s quite alright. When Katchen makes his return, his playing displays a tasteful, meticulous, and soft-ish touch, with most attractive trills to tickle one’s ears. Thereafter he cruises along with hypervirtuosic ease, with nary a passage offering even a hint of a challenge. But that softer playing never seems too far away. He always imbues little diversions with a contemplative, even tender feeling. It’s pretty nifty. But he also remembers that this is Beethoven at his most eroica, and so eruptive crescendos sound suitably volcanic. More impressive still is the first left-right passage, which Katchen dispatches with Pollini-esque command. Katchen delivers more superb trills after 9’, even if even he doesn’t quite match up to Yukio Yokoyama here. But he surpasses nearly everyone in the ascending-descending runs afterwards, which start off with breathtaking power and gradually taper off to a nice quiet conclusion. The Grand Flourish is among the grandest around, almost literally throwing one back into one’s listening seat (depending on the volume, of course) and, again, fully matches the magisterial command Pollini offers (circa the late ‘70s). So far, this recording is a virile, at times almost violent reading. That’s good – damn good – but not necessarily good enough to catapult this or any recording into the Emperor upper reaches. What’s needed, of course, is a solid (or preferably much better) Adagio. That’s what one gets here! Gamba opts to open it using a vigorous, heart-on-sleeve approach that is, as the accompaniment in the opener, a bit short on subtlety. Katchen is not. In stark contrast to the opening movement, he plays gently, with subtle dynamic and tonal gradations adding meaning to each note, chord, and phrase. While the movement never really evokes any romantic imagery of note, it creates a slightly melancholy and decidedly introspective oasis in an otherwise extroverted reading. Katchen even sees fit to play some passages in such a way as to sound like anguished cries, especially after 5’40” or so. To conclude the work, though, it’s back to the more vigorous style of the opener. Katchen explodes the movement into being, hammering (but never banging!) the music out, fortissimo style. Gamba leads the orchestra back into the fray with not a little martial force. Everyone knows just when to back off, but this is mostly a massive, virile, masculine take of the movement in a similarly styled overall take on the work. Excitement follows excitement, energy follows energy; this is stirring rendition of this work that makes much rock music seem puny, weak, and worthless by comparison. (Of course, most of it is.) There are, of course, other ways to present this work, but this is without question one of my favorites. Complaints are few (mostly to do with spotlighting and some less than truly top notch orchestral playing here and there), and praise is extensive. An amazing recording.

    Less impressive, but impressive nonetheless, is Yefim Bronfman’s 2005 recording with David Zinman and his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. Messrs Bronfman and Zinman also adhere to a more-is-more approach to the music as far as energy and force go. The orchestra opens the work in bold, punchy fashion, and Bronfman goes for an agile, fast, athletic approach. Zinman, as he does in other core works, adheres to some period practice with his modern instrument band. As one would expect, that creates superb clarity and tempi tend to be quick and the performance taut. Sweet horn work, (almost) crystal clear timps, and sprightly strings all add to the allure of the recording. Back to the soloist: Bronfman’s return is a model of virtuosic ease and grace, much like Katchen, only suppler. He varies his tone nicely, too, though in a somewhat narrow range. (He’s no Moiseiwitsch, that’s for sure, but more on that later . . .) The left-right split is excellent, with the cascading then ascending left hand almost unnervingly exact. The Grand Flourish is expertly dispatched, if not in as impressive a fashion as with Katchen. The Adagio, too, is quite good. The strings sound lovely, though the low strings are a bit plummy for my taste, and Bronfman enters and mostly plays in a nicely subdued style. He varies his approach as appropriate, but he doesn’t offer quite the same range that Katchen does, and his (and Zinman’s) approach is somewhat literal. This isn’t especially evocative music making, but rather it comes across as a sort of rest between towering movements. The Rondo finds Bronfman kicking things off with a muscular display, though, again, Katchen bests him here. If Bronfman is muscular, Zinman leads a positively Jay Cutler-esque follow-up. The playing is more forceful than in the Allegro, even if it avoids the near fierceness that Gamba brings. Bronfman easily rates among the most technically talented pianists to record the work, and he never strains even once, all being dashed off with vigorous insouciance. This can and does create a sort of surface-only feel to the whole thing, but that doesn’t detract a great deal from the recording. So, it is a step down from the dizzying heights of the Katchen & Co recording, but it is a superb one. Take excellent sound and a silly cheap price, and it seems that this one should be heard by all fans of the work.

    The last recording in this very small survey is an historic recording of not a little interest, particularly for fans of Ukrainian pianism. I write of Benno Moiseiwitsch’s 1938 recording with George Szell and the LPO. Allowances need to be made for the sound – very much of its era, though superbly transferred by Ward Marston for Naxos – and some of the interpretive devices more common then than now, but such allowances are easy to make. True, the orchestra sounds too distant and muffled in the Allegro to really add the needed oomph, and yes, Szell offers his typically efficient conducting, though it is more flexible than some of his late recordings, but one comes to this disc for one reason and one reason only: Mr Moiseiwitsch. He glides into the piece effortlessly, with surprisingly varied tone (not hidden in the surface noise!), and a peculiar and wonderful mix of grace and strength that few can quite match. Szell leads a somewhat curiously underdriven orchestral interlude, but again, it’s all about the pianism. Moiseiwitsch’s return is the apogee of tasteful middle period LvB, yet it still contains ample excitement. Then something unexpected happens: Moiseiwitsch slows things way down – daringly so – after 5’50” and plays with sustained slow beauty. The effect is simultaneously contrived and spectacular. The left-right passages, both of them, are poised and clear, with each part pronounced, and the Grand Flourish is satisfyingly grand and deliciously fluid. Moiseiwitsch simply cannot succumb the garish display; he keeps things under control. The Adagio is the glory of the recording. Things get off to a great start with a beautiful, almost touching (from Szell!) orchestral intro. After that, it’s all Benno, and he’s in his element. Beauty, grace, tenderness, yes, this movement becomes a romantic oasis, but never does it threaten to tip over into excessively sentimental music making. This great strength of Moiseiwitsch’s is what makes him the one pianist I actually greatly enjoy in Rachmaninov’s music. The music making is somewhat abstract – no Schnabelian ‘30s movie here – but ranks among the most beautiful renditions I’ve heard. The Rondo opens with Moiseiwitsch opting for a playful style. Szell throws in the heroics. Even in the most heated passages, the pianist never produces an ugly sound, and if the movement and whole work lack the overwhelming power and energy of the prior two recordings, it makes up for it with old school aristocratic allure. This is probably not a recording for everyone, but for fans of the key artist, it is.

    So a quick trio, and I must say that I’m far happier with the results than last time. Nary a dud is to be heard, and Mr Katchen offers one of the best around. Hopefully the next batch will be as good.


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    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  5. #5
    Captain of Water Music
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    Time for the latest installment in my on-going, one day to be 73 part series. When last I explored new recordings of this work, I was lucky enough to end up with three good recordings. This time I opted for six new versions, and while a 100% hit rate didn’t occur again, I at least ended up with some more fine recordings.

    The first of the six new recordings ended up being a whole lot more than good. Indeed, it goes straight to the top tier just as Julius Katchen’s recording did last time. I write of Russell Sherman’s early-80s recording with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, originally on Pro Arte recordings and now on Vanguard. As with Sherman’s sonata cycle – or anything else he’s recorded – this recording may very well elicit a love-it-or-hate-it response, but those who hate it are entitled to their wrong opinions. The opening Allegro finds the Czechs playing boldly and strongly and Sherman playing in a broken, blocky fashion. He quickly straightens up and plays with grandeur befitting the piece – but only for a bit. For, you see (and should hear), he’s about more than that: his return after the orchestral interlude is characterized by coy, precious trills and a more intimate overall approach. And Sherman throws in myriad little touches everywhere. The first left-right split possesses nearly breathtaking clarity, and here Sherman sees fit to tinker with the individual parts with brassy bravura. Each voice becomes more distinct. The Grand Flourish is grand, though not toweringly so, and Sherman again tinkers with the tempo. Another thing he does well is fade into the background; Sherman is more than willing to share the limelight with the band, and he gracefully fades away time and again to aid in that. The Adagio un poco mosso opens with warm, beautiful playing from the strings, providing a nice billowy atmosphere for Sherman’s very slow entry. He presents each note with great care. The overall conception is almost syrupy romantic – or rather, an idealized version of syrupy romanticism. This is more mind-on-sleeve than heart-on-sleeve; the entire thing maintains a certain level of abstraction. Sherman’s trills throughout the movement delight: they’re variegated to the nth degree and at times sound invitingly limpid. The concluding Rondo opens with Sherman alternating between suitably powerful playing and more subdued introspection, which somehow creates a somewhat stiff, march-like feel to the whole thing. It’s quite remarkable and a bit frustrating at the same time. The march-like demeanor carries over to the orchestral playing, too. But then Sherman returns with a gliding ease before tearing into the music – and he always knows just when to do that. So he carries on to the end, tinkerin’ and fussin’ and tweakin’ – and I love it. Others may very well be bothered by such an approach, but as with his other LvB, his Bartok, his Liszt, and his Schubert, Sherman breathes new, unique life into the music. Throw in superb sound, and this is a major recording for me.

    Next up is the third appearance of the great Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in my on-going survey. And this one’s a fine one. Here the year is 1975 and the maestro assisting him is Sergiu Celibidache. The band is the Paris Symphony Orchestra. The label is Music & Arts. The performance is superb. Celi leads a solid opening, and Michelangeli jets through his intro with effortless panache and style. Each note is as lovingly presented as with Sherman. They just sound classier here. Celi leads a somewhat soft interlude, though excessively slow tempi are nowhere to be found. (Celi seemed to be better in this regard; his teaming with Murray Perahia in a Mozart concerto is likewise not slow at all.) Michelangeli’s return boasts trills of the highest order, pulsating drive, and infectious energy. The first (and second) left-right split is as one would expect: bold, big, clear, precise, meticulous. The Grand Flourish is a treat: fast and lithe and powerful and heroic, it really hits the spot. The Adagio un poco mosso opens with some lean yet lovely string playing from the French band, and Michelangeli enters displaying supreme control over absolutely every aspect of everything. Sherman is no slouch in this area, and many other pianists likewise excel at this, but Michelangeli is in a class of his own. Such meticulousness! Some may say preciousness, but whatever. I’ve rarely thought of the great Italian pianist as an overtly romantic player, and here he maintains his overall style, yet – yet one can just detect whiffs of shyly romantic playing. And it is fine. The Rondo opens with Michelangeli delivering massive, striking playing, but he also holds back a bit on the speed. The orchestral follow-up is just a bit stodgy, but that gives way to forceful playing from the pianist, and the orchestra then takes its lead from him through to the end. This performance is very much all about Michelangeli; Celi relegates himself and his band to a background role, and all works rather well. Decent if not great sound. Another winner.

    Next up is a recording from the impressive historical tandem of Van Cliburn and Fritz Reiner on RCA. There’s much to enjoy about this recording, to be sure – but . . . I’ll start with the Allegro. The orchestral opening is potent and precise. Well, it is Reiner conducting. Cliburn enters in a grand, sweeping, romantic manner, with absolute control over every aspect of his playing. Well, it is Cliburn. There’s some predictable back and forth, though Cliburn throws in some soft, almost sweet trills for good measure. The left-right splits are superbly executed, though the right hand predominates. The Grand Flourish is grand indeed, and superbly controlled. Throughout, Reiner predictably supports the soloist with technically secure conducting, the CSO delivering the technically proficient playing. The Adagio un poco mosso opens with wonderfully executed, beautiful, but also just a bit clinical playing from the band. Cliburn brings the romance. Delicate and nuanced, with amazing tonal and dynamic shadings, the ivory tickling is of the highest order. It reminds me why this pianist is one of only two I like really like in Rachmaninov. (The other is Moiseiwitsch.) Cliburn opens the Rondo in reasonably strong fashion, but he holds something back. I know I wanted more. Perhaps to partially compensate, Reiner leads an industrial strength accompaniment. Back and forth it goes, superb playing from the soloist, and more superb playing from the Chicagoans. But at the end of the recording I just wanted more. This is a very good recording, but it sounds predictable and lacks that spark for me. Sound is good but dated.

    Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli makes yet another appearance, this time with Mario Rossi (?) and the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in a 1960 recording. I’ve got the Aura incarnation. The Allegro opens with crisp, energetic orchestral playing, and Michelangeli cruises right along when his time comes. His playing is grand, precise, and effortless, as one should expect from the then 40 year old. Indeed, when thinking of his other pre-Giulini versions of the work, all of Michelangeli’s traits are there: superb trills, excellent clarity in the left-right passages, a grand Grand Flourish, absolute command of every aspect of the playing, and generally quick-ish playing. (For the Giulini recording, the tempi are slower, otherwise all is much the same.) Here’s it’s the band that makes a difference. In this recording, it ain’t so hot. The orchestra sounds a bit rough. The spotlighting, especially of the winds, and the not exactly inspired conducting don’t lend support that the pianist deserves. The Adagio un poco mosso is much the same, though here Michelangeli plays more romantically than in the other three versions in my survey. There’s not a great deal beyond that. The concluding Rondo opens with Michelangeli delivering thundering lower register playing at high speed, and the orchestra comes out swinging. There’s plenty of energy and drive and oomph, but there’s just not enough of any trait to make this recording really noteworthy. Decent mono sound.

    Next up is an obscure recording – except to fans of the pianist. I refer to Bruno Gelber’s 1966 recording with Ferdinand Leitner and the Philharmonia on EMI. Gelber’s fans often heap effusive praise on his playing, so I had to take listen. Effusiveness seems excessive. Oh, there’s nothing at all wrong with Gelber’s playing, there’s just nothing very special about it. The Allegro is taken at a comparatively broad tempo, but that doesn’t prevent the orchestra from playing with power. Gelber’s entrance is on the grand, romantic side of things, and he displays a nice tonal palette and excellent dynamic control, especially at the lower end of the spectrum. Leitner, by 1966 an old hand in this work, delivers solid if not great support, which is clear in the interlude. Now, when Gelber returns, he displays more of his fine playing with a solid left-right passage, sweet trills after 9’30”, and a sweeping Grand Flourish. What he fails to do is generate much in the way of genuine excitement. It’s Passion Lite. The Adagio un poco mosso, on the other hand, is where Gelber really shines. The orchestra lends solid, nuanced support, but it is all about Gelber. He plays clearly yet tenderly, caressing the keyboard, and extracting a perfumed, touching interpretation of this lovely slow movement. He almost makes the music veer into Rach-like sentimentality, though he never quite takes it there. The Rondo is much the same as the Allegro: somewhat broad in conception, with sweeping romanticism and grand gestures aplenty. It just fails to take off, at least for me. I’ve heard dozens of better versions. The sound is dated 60s stereo. One thing I did notice is that I liked the two solo works (Opp 13 & 27/2) more than the concerto.

    The last version in this survey is the first recording of the work by Alfred Brendel, where he teamed up with a young Zubin Mehta on Vox Turnabout way back in the 60s. The Allegro opens with well executed, high energy playing from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Brendel enters and plays with a youthful zest absent from his later recordings, which, when combined with the orchestral playing, creates an athletic sound. Now, Brendel delivers the left-right splits well, and his Grand Flourish is nice and big, but here his main focus is on the finer details, the more inward aspects of the music. While not exactly sentimental, it is more emotionally probing than one would normally expect from this pianist. The Adagio un poco mosso sounds warm and gracious and lovely at the start, and Brendel’s playing sounds the same when he enters. He actually goes a long way to creating a truly romantic soundworld, though some of the louder playing sounds too clangorous and ruins the effect. Some hokey recording tricks – including some big-ass flutes – do there best to undermine the goings-on, but fortunately nothing derails the recording. The Rondo sounds more defiant and rouge-ish that powerful or martial while Brendel plays, though Mehta and the band throw in the beef when needed. A few times the playing loses steam, but overall, this is a nice, relatively youthful recording that will stand up quite well to repeated listens. Good but old-fashioned stereo sound.

    So, six new versions, and one crackerjack recording (the Sherman); one superb sample of live artistry (the Michelangeli / Celi ditty); one excellent, youthful reading (Brendel); one solid but less than hoped for reading (Cliburn); and two middle of the road or less versions. That seems about right. I really should try some more.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  6. #6
    Captain of Water Music some guy's Avatar
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    But two hundred years stops short of quite a lot of Beethoven. 200 only gets us up to the fourth symphony and the Pathetique sonata.

    Even the Emperor concerto isn't two hundred years old, yet.

    (I'm just sayin'.)

  7. #7
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso methodistgirl's Avatar
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    Wow what a report. You would be great working at a newspaper some
    where. That was a lot of typing! Beethoven can be simple as falling
    off of an organ bench! I almost did that once! I had to hang on to
    the organ bench today because on of the musicians had it jacked up with
    two pieces of wood. I had a very hard time today reaching the foot
    pedals! I guess Paul though I grew to six feet and a half overnight!
    Sorry! I'm still five foot two.

  8. #8
    Admiral Honkenwheezenpooferspieler Corno Dolce's Avatar
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    The Emperor Concerto - great piece of music, no doubt about that!
    *If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks* -Abba Zeno-

    *Protagoras: "Truth is subjective. What is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Your opinion is true by virtue of its being your opinion."

    *Socrates: "My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you are in absolute error. Since this is my opinion, then according to your philosophy you must grant that it is true."

    "Improvisational Art": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSxVO3EoCRM

  9. #9
    Lieutenant Commander, Concertmaster CMB's Avatar
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    Funny you mention this - I have been listening to this piece for the last 2 weeks (the Van Cliburn).

    I find it amazing that EVERY time I listen to this, I find something new and different in it to explore and enjoy.

    Not a very erudite response, but Beethoven was my start in classical music, so I agree that there just *is* something about his work that is compelling...
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  10. #10
    Admiral Honkenwheezenpooferspieler Corno Dolce's Avatar
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    Hi CMB,

    Our forum colleague Todd seems to have expert knowledge on Beethoven, so I am in awe of that which he shares. Since I lack much expert knowledge about Beethoven's music, I limit my self to positively commenting on what is being shared.

    Cheers,

    Corno Dolce
    *If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks* -Abba Zeno-

    *Protagoras: "Truth is subjective. What is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Your opinion is true by virtue of its being your opinion."

    *Socrates: "My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you are in absolute error. Since this is my opinion, then according to your philosophy you must grant that it is true."

    "Improvisational Art": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSxVO3EoCRM

  11. #11
    Seaman, Mezzoforte
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    The best recording...


  12. #12
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    The great Beethoven also composed some absolute shite: King Stephen Overture springs to mind immediately.

  13. #13
    Seaman, Mezzoforte
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    Quote Originally Posted by Contratrombone64 View Post
    The great Beethoven also composed some absolute shite: King Stephen Overture springs to mind immediately.
    This is festspiele music and is totally misunderstood. The complete incidental music for King Stephen (and Ruins of Athens) is excellent, packed with 'hits' in fact. If you'd heard the overture played by the Hanover Band you may think again.

    When persons are in doubt I advise them thus..

    "Only a fool would back against Beethoven" - Rod Corkin.

  14. #14
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    The Ruins of Athens has some wonderful moments, for sure. Still don't like King Stephen (and I've played it).

  15. #15
    Captain of Water Music
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    At last! For years I’ve wanted to hear Annie Fischer play the Emperor, and a year or so ago I read about a bootleg version, though I was never able to track it down. Fortunately, the good folks at Doremi have finally delivered what I’ve been waiting for! An actual performance of the work by St Annie! (I don’t know if it’s the same performance as the bootleg.) The performance comes as part of a three disc set – 2 DVDs, 1 CD – that includes eight concertos and a couple encores, recorded from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. Alas, the performance doesn’t find her paired with one of the great conductors of the age – I was rather selfishly hoping for a performance with Klemperer or Fricsay, with whom she regularly collaborated – but with one Peter Mura, and the orchestra is the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, hardly one of the great bands. Ultimately that is of no matter, or at least little matter. No, it’s the concerto that matters. And here there’s much to enjoy, and some things to be less thrilled about. The Allegro that opens the work encapsulates all of the strengths and weaknesses. Annie opens with superb weight, exciting intensity, and cutting articulation, but she also misses some notes and mangles a few others. She’s a bit uncertain, maybe a little nervous. (She was never a flawless technician, and having heard a number of her other live recordings I expected as much.) It doesn’t sound horrible, and it doesn’t really detract from the proceedings, but it’s there. The sound quality is decidedly all about Annie, as well, which means that she can and does overpower the notably small orchestra. Mura, when he and his band take over, sound well rehearsed and eager, but also a bit scrappy and not of, say, BPO quality. They also have what I’ll call an Olde Tyme sound, even for the ‘60s. It seems they are informed by even earlier decades. They also lack the intensity of Annie. Anyway, when Annie returns after the orchestral interlude, she delivers fine trills, some nicely nuanced quieter passages, some thrilling faster passages, and an undeniable impetuousness during the transitional passages. Her first take at the distinct left-right passage is superb, with equal weight given to both parts, and the few slips actually seem to enhance the effect. She hammers out the ascending and descending scales a bit later on before tapering off perfectly. The Grand Flourish is grand indeed, and sweeping and propulsive: this is Annie at her formidable best. She’s absorbed in the music, and as a result her music making is absorbing. (When she’s not playing, she’s discreetly but obviously moving along with the music.) Her playing is uneven and temperamental, there’s no doubt, but that adds to the allure. The Adagio un poco mosso finds the orchestra playing quite nicely, but again, it’s Annie’s show. She plays with what I can only describe as firm tenderness. That is, she plays with obvious tenderness and even delicacy, but she never wallows in the music and never lets it become sappy. Mura’s band veers dangerously close to sappy territory at times, but Annie reins them in it seems. The more intense middle section is suitably intense, and then the movement returns to the opening material with enough distinction and difference to satisfy. The concluding Rondo thunders into being under Annie’s fingers. Incisive and potent, she drives the music forward, but she also knows, almost instinctively it seems, when to vary her touch and when to back off. The band does its best to keep up with her, but it’s not a fair match, and the unbalanced sound really doesn’t do them any favors. The energy and excitement of the whole thing compels one to listen greedily to the end. So, here it is, an Emperor by Annie, and I’m quite happy with it. It most definitely is not the best version I’ve heard, and there are disappointing elements in the performance. The orchestra and conductor aren’t at Annie’s level, and the heroine of the performance isn’t in top form, either. But there’s enough there to admire mightily and there’s definitely reason enough to listen many times. Sound quality isn’t as bad as I had feared: it’s good mono – for the 50s. There’s a wide enough dynamic range, and more than enough detail. The balance favors the soloist, which is fine by me. Image quality is about what I’d expect from an over 40-year old Hungarian source. So, this doesn’t join Pollini, Serkin (with Ormandy), or Katchen at the top of the heap, but I’m thrilled to have it.[/font]

    The next recording in this survey offers pretty significant contrast. This most recent recording I’ve heard, pairing François-Frédéric Guy with Philippe Jordan and the Orchestre Philharmonique De Radio France, is more about subtlety and details. Sure, the orchestra opens with more than enough heft in the Allegro, and the energy level is quite high, but when it comes to Guy, well, he’s different. He seems to want to do it all, and in many ways he does. He’s nimble and swift and nuanced and strong. When he returns after the orchestral interlude his playing is a model of Gallic pianism: feathery-light, super-clean trills; ultra-nuanced piano and pianissimo playing; grace and detail; perhaps more surface than depth. The first left-right split (and the second one, too) is of about average clarity, but it displays a certain “organic” trait – it’s blended and seems to emerge perfectly from what came before. The trills that come a bit later end up sounding dry and front-loaded, if you will (ie, precise and clean, followed by a gradual, gentle blurring). The Grand Flourish is broad and fluid and a bit on the small side. Afterward, Guy seems to stop and smell the roses, as it were: he revels in the dynamic and stylistic contrasts of the music, and he takes his time. The orchestra plays superbly throughout, but then between about 17’ and 18’, they do something I’ve not heard in any other recording, at least to this extent. They terrace the dynamics up and down. It’s really quite impressive. (Could it be an engineering trick, or at least aided in the engineering process?) Moving on to the Adagio finds something new. The orchestra plays with a sort of prim, crisp romanticism, with especially fine low strings. Guy is in his element here, his almost hypersensitive touch harking back to Schnabel and Serkin (with Bernstein) – almost. The movement more or less remains a mix of these two elements throughout, with the more vigorous middle section sounding just a bit soft. The Rondo opens with playing that lacks the nth degree of power and energy, but it definitely sounds confident and clear. Superb orchestral execution tied to more nifty terracing make for a fine contrast to Guy. All these strong elements never quite seem to jell completely though. It’s lower wattage than I tend to prefer. And that is the case with the whole thing. Guy is a supremely talented pianist, no doubt of that, and both conductor and band display modern day technical skill, but it never really ignites. That written, I know why some people may like this a lot. Sound is state of the art, and the instrumental balance is concert hall realistic – no supersize piano here.

    Time now for the great Youri Egorov’s version. Here’s a version I was hoping to love, to place in the upper echelon of recordings. Alas, I cannot. There’s just too much that gets in the way. The first doubts arrive at the very beginning. Egorov opens the Allegro with a smooth, swelling sound, but it never becomes as big and forceful as it should. It’s just a bit too lush and relaxed. Not helping any is Wolfgang Sawallisch’s somewhat heavy-handed conducting of the Philharmonia, which results in a slightly thick and not so driven sound. Egorov’s return is lighter and nimbler with some of the best trills I’ve heard. He definitely excels in the quieter sections, particularly since his louder playing can become a tad too metallic. It seems he can find shadings and nuances lost to most pianists. He’s almost like a super-virtuosic Kempff in that regard; he produces literally gobs of aural beauty. The left-right split shows his versatility, too; it sounds almost like two different pianists, the left hand rich, spacious, and fluid, the right taut and more precise and nimble. Unfortunately, when the Grand Flourish arrives, Egorov produces undernourished playing. But the trills that come later are simply superb: feathery and buttery smooth and clear all at the same time. So the opening movement is mixed. The same cannot be written of the Adagio. Put succinctly, this is the most beautiful rendition I’ve heard. Sawallisch has the band take it slow, and it delivers some glorious string playing. Egorov then slows everything down some more, and he proceeds to produce a seamless flow of gorgeous pianism. Each note and phrase is imbued with tonal variety and subtle dynamic inflection. It’s lush. It’s gentle. It’s decidedly on the romantic end of the spectrum. His trills here are ethereal. (Oh, if only he had recorded Op 111!) Throughout everything is rightly done to keep all focus on Egorov – the recorded balance, the accompaniment. It’s all so glorious. But then it’s back to less glorious reality. The Rondo opens with notable strength from Egorov, but not really much musical force. Sawallisch brings that, but he also brings back the heavy hand. Egorov generally doesn’t deliver the heat and weight I prefer, though there are extended passages where he keenly displays his chops, gliding effortlessly along. Ultimately, though, one movement does not a concerto make. If he could play the whole thing at the same artistic heights as the Adagio, this would be one of the great recordings. But the outer movements lack the intensity this piece needs.

    Next up is a recording by a pianist I now include among my favorites: Christian Zacharias. His 1988 recording with Hans Vonk and the Staatskapelle Dresden displays all of Zacharias’ traits, which I thoroughly enjoy, but it also demonstrates that not every pianist with formidable gifts records a great Emperor. That’s not to write that such a pianist can’t record an enjoyable one. Take the Allegro. Zacharias and his cohorts both deliver excellent openings. The orchestra sounding swift, athletic, and smooth. Zacharias plays with panache. His playing is light, smooth, effortless, and just a bit superficial. He displays superb independence of hands throughout, and he tosses off the trills with mellifluous nonchalance. The left-right passage is superbly clear, yet it still emphasizes the right hand, quite purposely. (The second one is more evenly balanced.) The Grand Flourish is sweeping and incredibly nimble, but it’s also lightweight. All throughout the movement it’s obvious that Zacharias is at his best in the less assertive music, but unlike Guy or Egorov, he dashes off the most intense music with an ease that recalls Gieseking. The Adagio un poco mosso opens with the orchestra playing in lean, light, swift style and then Zacharias enters, playing comparatively swiftly, though he manages to deliver a taut overall tempo blended perfectly with immaculate control and ear seducing tonal beauty. (Zacharias never produces a single unpleasant sound throughout the recording.) In the middle he becomes slightly more forceful as required, and the long trills sound uncommonly lovely and clear. The Rondo opens with outstanding agility on Zacharias’ part, but it’s definitely lightweight stuff. The orchestra doesn’t do much to add heft or martial strength, either. Vonk knows how to support his soloist, though one may ultimately want something more intense. And so it goes until the end. Everything is delivered with immaculate attention to detail and superb articulation. But it’s also just a tad too lightweight. This isn’t stormy, intense Beethoven, this is light, fun Beethoven. That works extremely well in the C major concerto, say, but less well here. Work well it does, though, but I can’t say this joins my favorites.

    Always on the lookout for a good or hopefully great new recording, I decided to try Hélène Grimaud teamed with Vladimir Jurowski in their 2006 recording, also with the Staatskapelle Dresden. I’ve tried Grimaud in some other works, and while she can certainly play, she really hasn’t done much for me. I didn’t expect a powerhouse reading – technically or interpretively – but there’s some good stuff here. To start, Grimaud plays the opening ascending passage in a slightly staggered, blocky fashion that catches one’s ear. So too does her bright tone. Jurowski leads a very solid, powerful sounding orchestra to support her, with every musical i dotted and t crossed. It’s here that one of my biggest quibbles with this recording crops up. The sound quality isn’t what I look for. Oh, yes, there’s heft and clarity and details, details, details. Too many details, in fact. This is very modern, very processed recording. The violas sound lovely, for instance, but I seriously doubt they would leap to prominence and then fade out in concert like they do here. (They certainly didn’t the two times I heard this work in concert.) Ditto for various wind instruments. Anyway, back to the playing: Grimaud’s return is somewhat conventional in conception, but it’s excellent in execution. She flits across the keyboard, with coruscating trills and runs. The left-right passage is not ideally clear, and once again there is a right hand prominence. The Grand Flourish is nicely scaled and has just about enough oomph. This becomes another somewhat lightweight take, though. The Adagio opens with cool but sumptuous playing from the band before Grimaud delivers on her promise and plays with careful, delicate beauty. It’s an almost idealized but ultimately too calculated attempt at light romanticism, and there’s even some heavy breathing to enhance the effect. The Rondo bursts into being, with both Grimaud and her supporters playing with a combination of intensity and bouncy energy. Grimaud throws in some nuanced playing here and there, but mostly this is an energetic reading. It may read like I’m not enthusiastic about this recording, but I am. Yes, I have a number of quibbles, from the lightweight approach to the artificial sound, but somehow – and I’m not at all sure how – when taken as a whole, I really like this recording. This recording doesn’t scale Polliniesque heights, but it offers more than enough to bring me back.

    Next up is yet another appearance by the great Rudolf Serkin, this time collaborating with the equally great Rafael Kubelik and his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Orfeo release. In stark contrast to the Grimaud / Jurowski recording, this live recording offers “natural” balance and detail. Nothing jumps out too much. Perhaps as a result, the whole performance takes on a “just right” balance and feel, though one with a few limitations. Serkin opens the Allegro with clean, strong, but slightly cautious and stiff playing. It’s certainly not the barn-storming approach he took decades earlier. (His audible humming shows that his appreciation of the score hadn’t diminished in those decades.) On the plus side, his tone is much more attractive in this recording than in all his other recordings. Kubelik, a master conductor, knows just how to accompany the great pianist, with a lyrical yet energetic style. It may lack that last bit of bite, but such an approach doesn’t seem warranted here. Serkin’s return is lighter and more playful (!) than in earlier versions, with attractive but not world-beating trills and a left-right split ever so slightly favoring the right hand. The Grand Flourish is delivered with suitable intensity and it assumes slightly broad dimensions. One thing is certain, though: Serkin’s absolute command that he displayed in earlier years isn’t present. He’s not sloppy or anything, he’s just not as assured as in earlier versions. He seems to be working a bit harder. (A slightly mistimed reentry by the orchestra mars the proceedings a bit, too.) The Adagio ends up being the strongest movement in this recording, which comes as no surprise given the actors involved. Kubelik directs warm, tender playing from his band (though the low strings sound a bit too plummy). Serkin delivers even more beautiful playing. There’s none of his hard-edged incisiveness here. He almost veers over into sentimentality, or at least the closest approximation of it that Serkin would ever play. It’s almost as attractive as Egorov’s playing, and the overall effect is almost as captivating as in his recording with Bernstein. There’s a beautiful restraint from all involved in this movement. It takes on a calm, autumnal feel, if you will. Serkin starts the Rondo in explosive fashion, though he gives up a bit of clarity and command in the process. Kubelik and his band pack enough punch too, but as the movement progresses, there seems to be more of a cheerful, triumphant mood than an heroic one. That’s fine. There are still hints of Serkin’s earlier muscularity at times, but this time it’s married to a warmer humanity, though those who like the Serkin-y cutting sound will find a few moments of it to cherish. Of the four Serkin recordings I’ve heard, this may in some ways be the weakest. It certainly cannot measure up to his recordings with Ormandy and Bernstein – which are two of the best recordings out there – but Serkin’s older, wiser approach offers something worth hearing.

    That brings me to the last recording in this survey, the much lauded recording by Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra from the 1970s. Kovacevich is a sometimes maddening pianist. At his recorded best, he is simply great. But his greatest accomplishments seem to be limited to his late Schubert and middle and late Beethoven. (He’s also maddening because in recital he sounds different than on record. When I heard him play Beethoven, Bach and Schubert in recital, his tone had none of the cutting, metallic edge it often has on record.) I did come to this recording with high hopes. But they were dashed. I’ll just write it now: I don’t like this recording. There are some strong points, but overall this one is yet another over-lauded concerto recording from Mr Kovacevich. The Allegro displays both strengths and weaknesses. Kovacevich opens with nice energy and a not unpleasant cutting, metallic sound. Davis, predictably, leads a forceful accompaniment. The orchestra executes superbly, with a sort of industrial efficiency, rather like some of George Szell’s recordings. Kovacevich’s return is very fine and actually shows a bit of nuance, though here it’s mostly about dynamic shading. Tonal variety is not much in evidence. Given the almost one-dimensional nuance, it’s not surprising that the effect is of faux emoting. This is what Kovacevich thinks emotional playing sounds like. The left-right split is not particularly clear and is very right-hand focused, and in the more intense passages his tone takes on a gruff sound and feel. The Grand Flourish is fast ‘n’ furious, and metallic and gruff. The Adagio offers a nice contrast to the opening movement in that it is more attractive – albeit in a sort of mass-produced, by-the-numbers way. While Kovacevich is softer and more delicate here, the monochrome playing off-sets any gains. To boot, the middle section is too restrained. Nothing clicks. Now, one would assume the Rondo would fare better, and it sort of does. It’s stronger, and Kovacevich’s cutting sound is a good thing here. But whether one considers the somewhat lackluster opening, or the not too exciting middle, it just doesn’t seem to click. The playing picks up in the last third or so, but by then it’s too late, and besides, what’s on offer isn’t very appealing. I’ve never really cared for any of Kovacevich’s concerto recordings – the Bartok concertos are brutalized, the Schumann and Grieg concertos are turned into monochrome, unsmiling musical lead – and unfortunately I don’t like the Beethoven concertos either.

    So, seven new versions down, and nary a titanic recording among them. Annie Fischer’s comes closest, but it is hampered by a few too many caveats to scale the heights. Hélène Grimaud and Christian Zacharias both offer excellent recordings that I will turn to again to hear lighter takes on the work. And Rudolf Serkin’s recording offers many fine things. But no knock-outs this time around. My collecting pace for this work has slowed in the last year. There are few versions out there that interest me now. (The newly reissued Anton Kuerti cycle and the new John O’Conor cycle head the list.) So perhaps I won’t find a new truly great recording to match my existing favorites. But I don’t know if I can ever give up the search.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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