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CD Review

Clifford Curzon Plays

  • Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto #1 in D minor
  • César Franck: Symphonic Variations *
  • Henry Charles Litolff: Concerto symphonique #4 - Scherzo *
Clifford Curzon, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
* London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Decca 466376-2 73:25
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Two classics in great recordings.

Clifford Curzon hated recording in general, and his relations with Szell were fractious at worst and civil at best. Together, however, they made what many consider the finest recorded performance of the Brahms concerto. Szell recorded the Brahms first at least four times: once with Schnabel, once with Fleisher, once with Curzon, and once with Serkin. Three of the four recordings are first-rate (Schnabel, despite some electrifying moments, simply doesn't have the fingers for the work), but the Curzon is special, particularly when the Serkin and the Fleisher would be at the top of my list, if not for the Curzon. The Fleisher recording is excellent, but has neither the neurasthenia of the Serkin nor the sheer weight of the Curzon.

From the opening bars, this reading grabs your attention. Szell gets the titanic orchestral introduction to rage like no other. Again, the orchestra has a weight missing from other Szell recordings, without sacrificing Szell's characteristic clarity. Curzon proves a match for the orchestral mass, with a magisterial entry and huge singing tone. Almost everyone else, in contrast, tends to sound a bit hysterical, hanging on to the keyboard by their fingernails. His first diminuendo also impresses in that his playing doesn't lose its heroic character, simply because he's gotten softer. In all, a certain gravitas clings to this reading: Szell and the orchestra move more deliberately and also more lyrically than in the conductor's other accounts of the score; Curzon, unlike other pianists, exploits extremes of dynamics and touch, rather than of character. His lyrical playing never becomes lightweight or fey. As I listened, the ghost of Beethoven seemed to shine more brightly - appropriately so, given Brahms' awe of that composer.

The end of the first movement screws up the tension and rhythmic excitement, which finds its release only at the beginning of the second movement. Again, Szell takes a tempo slower than his wont, drawing out the long, lyrical "Benedictus" theme not only without getting mired, but also carrying the listener along out over great vistas. Curzon treats his part as a great Beethoven adagio - something like the second movement to the Pathétique piano sonata. Some of his most affecting playing occurs here, in the largely two-part solo writing. I usually think of this concerto as Young Man's Music, in that the work deals in emotional extremes - either great storms or great tenderness. Curzon and Szell give me a new view: one closer to the psychic balance and maturity of late Brahms. The music is tender, but Szell and Curzon seem more like old men looking back than like young men melting in the moment. It fits the elegy for Schumann at least half in Brahms' mind at the time - tender, but not mawkish or out of place at a funeral.

The finale may disappoint those expecting more Sturm und Drang. Surely, Szell and Serkin's account, for instance, jabs like a boxer. But Curzon and Szell eschew immediate jolts and sparks for a long-term rhetorical strategy: triumph emerging over the storm. For me, it pays off. The final switch to the major mode, often seeming a bit perfunctory or obligatory, here becomes the point to which everything has been heading, the crown of the movement, where shafts of light appear to break through the clouds, in a bit of Beethovenian pastoralism. One feels the weight at the end, rather than at the beginning. To me, this reading bristles with large-scale risks that come off beautifully. I don't really believe in the Best Recording of X, but I certainly won't argue with those who choose this one.

Usually, César Franck's music gets me looking at my watch or for the sign to the nearest exit. It's probably all my fault, but excepting the slow movement to the symphony, I've yet to hear a really first-rate musical idea. Furthermore, the construction is so clunky, the large works seem held together with duct tape. The Symphonic Variations, on the other hand, strike me as one of Franck's tightest and most finished works. I still miss a really memorable idea (other than an annoyingly memorable one, like "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini"), but I have to admit that Franck does well by the cards he deals himself. The title, of course, inflates expectations. Yeah, it's variations, but a divertissement, rather than something grand - a distinction made all the more obvious, because it immediately follows the Brahms concerto on the program. I admit I can't get myself all that worked up about this versus that performance. I don't think there's much to recommend Boult and Curzon over Fleisher and Szell, or vice versa. You probably won't be buying the CD for the Franck anyway.

On to more delightful things. Litolff wrote a nearly perfect work in this scherzo movement - a toy of moving parts, where everything operates beautifully together, like a fine timepiece. I've never heard a bad performance of it, so therefore one recommends one over another with difficulty. Curzon and Boult, however, show me something surprising - an account of Mendelssohnian fleet-footedness that skips like lambs in Spring and which gives due weight to the music without over-emphasis. Everybody contributes. The strings, with great unanimity of tone, provide the delicate motor, the tactus, that allows the pianist to fly. The triangle for once doesn't play as if afraid it will never be heard from again, while the piccolo stands out for its cleanliness of tone and brilliance. The winds are mostly suave, and at those points when called upon for accent, never distort. Boult masters balance, while keeping the infectious fun of the piece. To sum up, in this ideal chamber-like performance, everybody's listening to everyone else and comes up with as wonderful an account as you're likely to hear.

The performances all stem from the Sixties, but Decca has apparently massaged the sound. They yield very little to the all-digital latest and greatest.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz