Summary for the Busy Executive: Very good, but not great.
Face it. You can choose from at least two hundred "Emperors" out there, with pianists the likes of Cliburn, Fleisher, Schnabel, Fischer, Backhaus, Kempff, Lupu, Pollini, Serkin, Solomon, Horowitz, and Gilels. Do you really need this one?
I admit I bought this CD because I'm a Cleveland Orchestra groupie, and I'm not sorry. I get nearly all the virtues of that orchestra – superb winds, fine (although not their normal preternaturally great) precision, and excellent ensemble with the soloist. Ashkenazy gives a glittering performance, with plenty of tonal power. Add to this gorgeous recorded sound, and you have a very good disc indeed.
However, you don't get anything extra-special. Right now, my favorite "Emperor" is Gilels, with Szell and the Cleveland, but that's just right now. I've gone back and forth among several favorites. Ashkenazy has everything except a compelling vision of Beethoven. I see nothing that would distinguish his Beethoven from his Brahms or his Liszt. It's a super-glam treatment – and the same treatment – in all cases. The pianism is thrilling, but I don't sense anything behind it other than technique.
The Choral Fantasy, an ode in praise of music and the Music of Life, has never been one of my favorites. Beethoven dashed it off, and to me, it shows. But that's just me. It has inspired several composers to use the same forces (for much better works). It's sectional, and unlike the finale to the Ninth, the sections don't particularly linger in one's memory. It always struck me as one of those "concert fillers" Beethoven occasionally turned out. A lot has been made of the choral theme's resemblance to the "Freude" theme of the Ninth, but it turns out that much of Beethoven's late choral music (mostly the throwaways like the Opferlied and the Bundeslied) seems like a tryout for that theme. Again, the performance is fine, no worse than any other. Given the weakness of the score, an outstanding performance would be a miracle.
Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.