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!