Sony SBK53262. Eugene Ormandy/Rudolf Serkin, piano. Philadelphia Orchestra (1966)
Granted, the Burleske may not be the subtlest thing Strauss wrote, but the Philadelphia plays raw. It seems capable of pumping out only loud and louder. Orchestral attack splats all over the beat. The performance exudes a certain elemental energy, but it's a long way to the end, and you quickly tire. Serkin doesn't get much opportunity to play off such an orchestra, although he's noble by himself in the second-subject slow waltz. Ormandy conducts moments, rather than the work as a whole. The orchestra shows you very little of interest, and you wait for Serkin's return, fortunately never all that far away. The cadenza – probably the weakest point of invention in the work (Strauss has the soloist noodle around on a dominant minor ninth chord) – becomes, under Serkin's fingers, an exciting windup to the coda.
Rudolf Kempe/Malcolm Frager, piano. Dresden State Orchestra (1976)
From the opening tutti, this performance stands in greatest possible contrast to Serkin and Ormandy. For one thing, we get three dynamic levels (f, mp, and p) as the full orchestra, then the winds and strings complete the first phrase. Frager delivers not only the virtuoso fireworks, but a refinement in the lyrical second subject, reminiscent of Chopin. Soloist and orchestra work together, at times in a chamber-music fashion, and reveal this relatively unknown work as something more than crash-bang or a piano-and-timpani concerto. Moreover, Frager knows when to hang back and knows as well that he can afford to, since the orchestra also can grab the listener's attention. As ever under Kempe, the players interact almost at the level of chamber music. The conductor distinguishes different textures with rare facility and consequently reveals one of the most tightly-constructed, ingeniously varied works to come from Strauss' pen. Even with better-known soloists, you won't find a better recorded performance than this one.
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