Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos: Nos. 1–4;
Violin Romances: Nos. 1, 2
Claudio Arrau (pn);
Arthur Grumiaux (vn);
Janos Starker (vc);
Bernard Haitink, cond;
Royal Concertgebouw O;
New Philharmonia O
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 5946 (4 CDs: 302:04)
This almost complete collection of Beethoven concertos from the Decca archives was recorded between 1960 and 1975. Missing is the piano concerto version of the violin concerto, which I suppose Decca never produced. Most of these artists and orchestras should be familiar, leaving one or two outliers. Among the familiar artists, Janos Starker, Henryk Szeryng, and Arthur Grumiaux are relatively underappreciated in the U.S., but with Starker and Szeryng always finding great favor with this reviewer. I don’t mean to undersell Grumiaux, whom the Europeans seem to appreciate appropriately. Herman Krebbers, hitherto unfamiliar to me, turns out an astonishing performance on this set. As expected from such an eclectic collection, there are triumphs, and there are disappointments. One nonmusical disappointment is the complete lack of biographical material in the booklet insert.
Stephen Kovacevich’s set of piano concertos is a curious mix of originality, insight, and poor judgment. Colin Davis mostly conducts with clarity of inner part-writing and with good balance of orchestral sound to allow the piano to be properly heard. As good as the BBC Symphony Orchestra is in Concertos 1 through 4, the superiority of the London Symphony Orchestra’s sound in the “Emperor” is unmistakable. In the earliest of these concertos (No. 2, written before No. 1), Kovacevich resorts to strong accents that often distort the flow of the music and produce an unwanted harshness. The humor in the last movement does not need Kovacevich’s added boost. Kovacevich understates the first movement of the First Piano Concerto, although his second movement is notable for its lyrical eloquence and his third movement notable for its spirited articulation. The C-Minor Concerto (No. 3) is the outstanding member of this set. Orchestral clarity is magnificent in the opening movement, and Kovacevich enters with great flair, and later becomes suitably quiet. Balance of piano and orchestra is especially fine. The second movement in the remote E-Major key is profoundly and reverently played. Kovacevich displays great clarity of line in the final movement. The first movement of No. 4 is most disappointing for its lack of orchestral detail, as Davis seems to let Kovacevich rule the roost in this very pianistic movement. The orchestra-and-piano conversational characteristic of the second movement comes off very well, and the final movement shows an improvement in orchestra-and-piano balance over that of the first movement. The “Emperor” Concerto would rank as the best in this collection were it not for Kovacevich’s blurred passagework in several places in the final movement, which seems to be caused by overpedaling.
The big surprise in this collection is the Violin Concerto, where Herman Krebbers, Bernard Haitink, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra combine forces to produce one of the best performances on record. It matches or exceeds in its effectiveness such collaborations as those of Milstein and Leinsdorf, Heifetz and Munch, Szeryng and Klemperer, Szeryng and Haitink, and Perlman and Giulini. Krebbers’s tone and technique are breathtaking, and his phrasing is glorious. Haitink allows orchestral detail to be heard in all its fullness. The beautiful solo bassoon passage in the final movement has the clearest presence in my memory, yet never obscures the solo violin. The cadenzas are unfamiliar to me, and may have been written by Krebbers. The insert booklet, once again, is not helpful. Herman Krebbers (born in 1923) was concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with notable solo and chamber music careers. His solo career was limited by an accident in 1979.
The performance of the Triple Concerto in this set has long been my favorite. The combination of Claudio Arrau, Henryk Szeryng, and Janos Starker, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Eliahu Inbal, is unmatched by any other performance in my experience, including the Karajan recording with Richter, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich.
The two Violin Romances, although not in the same class as the Violin Concerto, are nevertheless very attractive pieces. The performances here are excellent in every way, and expectedly so coming from the eminent Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. They surpass the Perlman/Barenboim performances, which, good though they may be, are lackluster in comparison.
The early Piano Concerto in E? was reconstructed by the Swiss musicologist Willy Hess from the 12- or 13-year-old budding composer’s extant keyboard reductions of the orchestral parts. This is interesting music from a historical viewpoint. It is well performed by Polish pianist Lidia Grychtolowna and the Folkwang Chamber Orchestra under German conductor Heinz Dressel.
My unenthusiastic comments concerning Kovacevich’s contributions to these concertos may lead many readers to ignore these discs. The reward of possession, however, lies in the Violin Concerto and in the Triple Concerto, with the two Romances as bonuses. No Beethoven fan should be without these Krebbers/Haitink and Arrau/Szeryng/Starker/Inbal contributions to the recorded literature, but if you already have them from their previous issuances, this set can be passed by. The piano concertos are better served by such pianists as Serkin, Arrau, Brendel, Goode, and Perahia (and of course Schnabel from an earlier era). Even if one ignores his shortcomings, Kovacevich does not add enough new ideas to warrant a recommendation.
FANFARE: Burton Rothleder
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