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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concertos #2-5 & "Moonlight" Sonata

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #3 in C Major, Op. 37 2
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #4 in G Major, Op. 58 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #5 in E Flat, Op. 73 "Emperor" 3
  • Piano Sonata #14 in C Sharp minor, Op. 27, #2 "Moonlight"
Solomon, piano
1 Philharmonia Orchestra/André Cluytens
2 BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
3 Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges
EMI Références ZDHB 65503 ADD monaural 2CDs: 77:56, 71:38
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Here's an indelible image: a boy in short pants, not yet ten, plays Liszt's Hungarian Fantasia and Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in front of a well-dressed audience in Queen's Hall. At the end of the performance, the boy is presented with a watch and a tricycle. The boy climbs on the tricycle and pedals offstage, much to the amusement of the audience. That boy was Solomon.

Solomon (born Solomon Cutner, but his family name never caught on with the public) was a child prodigy in the 1910s. A victim of probable exploitation, Solomon suffered the fate of many child prodigies, burned out, and ended up having to relaunch his career in the 20s. Sir Arthur Bliss wrote his Piano Concerto for Solomon, who premièred it at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and HMV recorded Solomon's playing throughout the 40s and 50s. His career ended in 1956, when he was silenced by a major stroke, but he survived until 1988. Fortunately, his recordings have outlasted his body. Harold C. Schonberg called him "one of the most finished pianists the century has had to show."

EMI has reissued Solomon's recordings of four out of the five Beethoven piano concertos - so why did they omit the First Concerto? Solomon and Menges recorded it, in stereo, at the end of the pianist's career. At any rate, the Third was recorded in 1944, the Second and Fourth in 1952, and the "Emperor" in 1955. The "Moonlight," an astonishing interpretation in spite of the watery sound, was recorded in 1945. Here, Solomon illuminates the surface of the lake with a sinister glow, dances clumsily (appropriately so) through the second movement, and erupts in a fury in the final movement - his speed and clarity here are unmatched. As for the concertos, Bryan Crimp (Solomon's biographer) points out that the pianist was dissatisfied with his collaboration with Cluytens (no mean Beethovenian in his own right). Perhaps I'm just a victim of the power of suggestion, but I agree that these two recordings do not shine with the magic that the others on this disc shine with. However, they're still very creditable performances, albeit distantly recorded. The Third is notable for its sinewy qualities, a lovely second movement, and an unusual first-movement cadenza by Clara Schumann - here's a real link with the past! Solomon's playing is too clear, too pure to be described as "muscular," but there's no shortage of power in the Third, and even more so in the "Emperor." The latter is played in a truly heroic (but not militant) manner, with a look backward at Mozart and a look forward at Berlioz. These are among these works' great recordings.

Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle