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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concertos

  • Concerto for Piano #3 in C minor, Op. 37
  • Concerto for Piano #4 in G Major, Op. 58
Leon Fleisher, piano
The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
Sony 82676-78767-2 66:28
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Great Third, fine Fourth.

This CD belongs to Sony's recent "Great Performances" series, and on the whole, the project has lived up to its advertising. Up front, I admit I've always been a Szell fanatic. If he made a bad recording, I haven't heard it. I grew up with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. My parents actually took me to concerts, and when I became a teen I often went on my own. So the sound of Beethoven (and Mozart and Haydn) in my head is Szell's, rather than, say, Karajan's, Furtwängler's, or Toscanini's. I may prefer other performances of specific pieces, but I always touch base with Szell first.

Leon Fleisher, a favorite of Szell's, became consequently a favorite of mine as well. To me, he had the virtues and a good deal of the rhythmic excitement of his teacher, Schnabel, with none of the clams. I particularly liked the way Fleisher delineated the architecture of a piece. He played in such a way that you always knew where you were in the musical argument. Particularly since his right-hand problems (these recordings predate those), he has become a warmer, more lyrical player, although these qualities always belonged to him. However, one notices a new sensuality as well.

These recordings, part of the complete set of Beethoven concertos, I doubt have ever left the catalogue. While I have found that I prefer other interpretations of some of these items, if you must have all the Beethoven piano concertos in one place, you can't really go wrong with the set. However, this new coupling has the advantage of newer, spiffier sound than the box, although the box isn't bad. I mention this because you may get a break on the price by getting them all at once.

Beethoven wrote his third piano concerto under the influence of Mozart's Piano Concerto #24, K. 491, in the same key of c-minor. In general, all of Beethoven's piano concertos owe a debt to Mozart's. He took one type of Mozart concerto – the so-called "military" type – and extended it in new directions. The Third comes from 1798 and stands closely in time to the "Pathétique" piano sonata, also in c. The two works share a grim, clenched-jaw, stormy-weather vision that also permeates Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, once again in c. Scholars and critics tend to put the scores of this time into a "transition" between Beethoven's first and second periods. On the one hand, they exhibit a conservatism in form that links them with Haydn and Mozart. On the other, the idiom is radically spare and less tied to conventional classical tropes and turns of phrase.

The first movement, one of the longest in Beethoven's catalogue, follows sonata form, but with the orchestral exposition repeated by the piano. It works with three ideas: a rising minor triad and fall, a rhythmic tail (TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM), and a lyrical idea in the major which often turn the music toward temporary serenity. In the beginning, Szell and Fleisher keep the lid on the Sturm und Drang – the storm threatens rather than breaks – because, after all, they have a hell of a long way to go before they finish. This actually gins up the tension, as you wait for the blow. Both Szell and especially Fleisher, particularly compared to Schnabel's provocative roughhouse, emphasize the music's elegance, at times bringing to mind the concerto's Mozartean roots. The rhythmic tail runs throughout the movement like Henry James's "figure in the carpet." Szell uses the prominence of that idea to determine climaxes. As with many of Szell's performances, there is only one major peak in the movement – in this case, the final chord before the cadenza. Speaking of which, the cadenza is Beethoven's own, an essential part of the movement's argument, rather than an excuse to take off on either some digression or irrelevant display. The ending, with its written-in accelerando that doubles and redoubles the beat, usually brings down the house, no matter how out-of-joint the performance, but I've never heard the passage so perfectly judged in terms of crescendo as here.

The slow movement belongs to the same Beethovenian sub-genre as its cousin in the "Pathétique" sonata – that is, a song which strives for and achieves nobility. Szell and Fleisher present it in such a way as to evoke late Mozart, particularly the Masonic music in Zauberflöte. Highlights include wind solos and duets so beautiful you may forget to breathe, as well as Fleisher's treatment of embellishment, as if to tell you that Chopin waits just around the corner.

In the finale, a rondo mainly of biting wit, Szell and the Cleveland provide most of the muscle and Fleisher most of the grace, although with Fleisher you always sense power in reserve, like the quiet hum of a dynamo, and with Szell you can't avoid stylishness. The "false-fugue" entry of the rondo theme in the strings stands out. Fleisher's crystalline runs and subtle control of color struck me forcefully. More than once, under the sway of his sophisticatedly heroic lines, I longed to hear Fleisher's version of the "Pathétique," although I have no idea whether he even recorded it. At any rate, the switch in tempo and mood at the very end – a joyful, dancing triple time – seems not an afterthought, but an inevitable outgrowth of everything that's come before. This is great, great Beethoven playing.

I love the Fourth Concerto the best of the five. Indeed, I find it a "necessary" piece. How can anybody be happy if they've never heard it? Like Schubert's Cello Quintet in C, it seems to contain all the wisdom, warmth, and humor I aspire to. I require a level of musicianship and insight for this work that I could cheerfully dispense with in, say, Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture or even in Beethoven's own "Emperor" concerto. Far and away my favorite performance is one I believe very few would even think of: Serkin with Ormandy and the Philadelphia, originally a Columbia LP and, as far as I know, never released as a CD, at least in the United States. If you see it, jump on it.

Szell and Fleisher do well, but not spectacularly well. Indeed, both of them sound a bit on automatic – generic Beethoven, rather than personal Beethoven in this most personal of concertos. Composed in 1807, it firmly belongs to Beethoven's second period. I associate it with the "Waldstein" sonata of 1804, mostly because of similar thematic shapes. Architecturally, however, the Fourth Piano Concerto is distinctive. Music historians have made a big fuss over the opening, for solo piano. However, the bigger deal comes from the fact that practically the entire concerto grows out of the opening measures, before the exposition proper. Beethoven forges myriad links among the three movements, and Ormandy and Serkin do the best job of bringing them to light. Furthermore, there's real juice in Ormandy and Serkin, even if the playing is a bit rougher, as well as a personal viewpoint toward the music. In comparison, Szell and Fleisher seem anonymous. Then again, so does almost everyone else. I've always found Arrau and Davis stodgy and Kempff and Leitner a bit juvenile. Schnabel and Sargent disappoint me as well – no better, no worse than Szell and Fleisher. This is a good interpretation, but there's little special about it, and unfortunately I think the same of the later Szell and Gilels Fourth. In the absence of Ormandy and Serkin, I would recommend Pollini and Abbado on DG, which has some life to it, but you have to buy the complete set of five.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz