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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concertos

  • Piano Concerto #3
  • Piano Concerto #4 *
Arthur Rubinstein, piano
* Josef Hofmann, piano
"Philharmonic-Symphony"/Eugene Ormandy
* "Philharmonic-Symphony"/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Music & Arts CD-1114 AAD monaural 63:54
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Here are, in the words of Music & Arts, "public performances [from New York City] by two keyboard giants from recently discovered broadcast transcriptions." Both performances date from the summer of 1943, when the American people had other things than Beethoven to think about – meaning they needed his music more than ever!

Arthur Rubinstein made several studio recordings of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, but recorded souvenirs of Hofmann's artistry are much rarer, and so it is his performance of Beethoven's Fourth which is of the greater interest here. It was recorded on August 22. The announcer's voice is retained at the beginning and at the end of the performance – a touch of "authenticity" I didn't mind at all. (I was less excited by the audience's applause after the first movement.) Hofmann was in his late 60s at the time and had been performing for more than fifty years. (In fact, his American "Golden Jubilee" concerts from the Metropolitan Opera House were recorded by Columbia Records in 1937.) A decade Rubinstein's senior, Hofmann's career was less consistent, his personal life was more tumultuous, and he was not to be blessed with a long "Indian summer" as Rubinstein was. Nevertheless, this Beethoven Fourth finds him living up to his reputation, and then some. He and Mitropoulos are in agreement that this concerto should be played with Classical fire; it is not a respite between the brio of the Third and Fifth Concertos, but a bridge made of no less volatile materials. Hofmann's tone is gorgeous, and the clarity and agility that he displays in the first movement give this music unusual electricity. Hofmann plays uncommon but effective cadenzas by Reinecke – another reason to enjoy this performance. This is not note-perfect playing, but it is surprisingly error-free, given the circumstances. (The pianist does seem to tire near the end, though.) What really matters here is the interpretation, which is both heroic and playful, and so loaded with personality – Beethoven's and the interpreters' – that no one who likes this concerto should miss this CD. In general, the recorded sound is excellent; intermittent noise from the source material (acetate discs?) is easy to ignore.

The CD's annotator ungraciously uses Mitropoulos as a stick with which to beat Ormandy, whose "renditions of the standard orchestral canon [he finds] insipidly sweet, sentimental, and even, in the case of Schéhérazade, vulgar." (What does Schéhérazade have to do with the matter at hand?) Nevertheless, he allows that Ormandy made "an excellent accompanying conductor," so I guess this Rubinstein-Ormandy Beethoven Third gets an implicit nod from him. Where some performers emphasize the score's C-minor drama – all Greek gods and lightning bolts – Rubinstein and Ormandy are more genial, if somewhat fleet. It is as if they are solving a difficult calculus problem, but happily confident of a positive outcome. In fact, the outcome is positive indeed, and this is a Third that sings like a lark more than it frowns like a thundercloud. Here, Rubinstein uses Beethoven's cadenzas with Busoni's modifications. Again, the sound is excellent for the period, and momentary sonic artifacts detract little from the performance.

While this CD probably is intended for a more specialized clientele, few would fail to respond to the appeal of such pianism (and such accompaniments). Good stuff!

Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle