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CD Review

3 Classic Albums

Claudio Arrau, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
Decca Classics 4786705 3CDs
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Someone at Universal Music deserves a raise. All of the "3 Classic Albums" releases have been excellent in their own right, but this one deserves special mention. Unlike the rest, which have not-so-subtle "themes", this pack simply presents three excellent albums featuring the composers that Arrau was most associated with. What a concept! As with the entire series, each album features original album artwork, truncated notes, and a short review at the top of each CD.

Arrau was a masterful Beethoven player, and his rock-solid and solemn interpretations easily merit consideration today. I was originally disappointed that his classic concerto collaborations (possibly the finest Concerto #4 I've heard) with Colin Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle weren't included here, but this choice turns out to be inspired. The Diabelli Variations aren't easy to pull off, but Arrau makes them a tightly-argued and cogent whole. He's well-caught by the (then) Philips engineers, who always gave their best for these recordings. I'm really taken by the range of expression that the Chilean virtuoso conjures up, all married to a clear fidelity to the score, and a deep feeling for the music. This is actually my first exposure to the complete work; I'm certainly convinced of its greatness based on a reading of this magnitude.

In the Waltzes, some may obviously prefer a more balletic treatment. Other pianists have also created contrast by varying the order of the canonical 14, or adding other short pieces. But here we have the standard 14, all in order, and all played with a directness that is entirely characteristic of such an artist. Some may feel that the dark richness of Arrau's palate is better suited to the Nocturnes (in which the pianist was unquestionably great), but even if these versions lack a certain sparkle, they are worth hearing. At slower speeds, I feel that Arrau finds a tremendous amount of color and emotional texture within the lines. And "deliberate" doesn't mean "heavy". Rather, these readings thrive on inner voices and an unfailing elegance that one appreciates more and more as time passes.

Finally, we have Liszt. Along with Jorge Bolet, Decca and Philips arguably laid claim to the two greatest Liszt players in the West. Like Bolet, Arrau was disinterested in virtuoso fireworks, more concerned with inner details and rich harmonics. And so we find a pair of concertos that impress for their sheer musical taste. This is no small feat; Richter dazzles and boggles the mind, also on Philips, but never entirely convinces you that this is really great music. Arrau dies trying. Every phrase gets equal attention, and Davis and the London Symphony give the orchestral side of things unusual weight and tension. It's not for everyone; it sorely lacks glitz and glamour, but compensates with genuine respect for these score's numerous colors. If climaxes are a touch underplayed, Arrau gives his all to ensure clarity, and lovingly captures details no one else does. I find the Concerto #1 responds better to this collaboration than does the musically-superior Concerto #2, and neither will satisfy fans of say, Kissin or Lang Lang. But for those who believe these works are more than showpieces, this fits the bill. That goes for the 3 Etudes, as well. Heck, the whole collection could fit that. All three albums sound fine, look great, and show Arrau at his very best. An inspired compilation.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman