Beethoven, Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5

COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Mozart
LABELS: Testament
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Solomon (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges, André Cluytens
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1219, 1220, 1221 ADD mono
Hans Werner Henze once recalled how during the Second World War he came to associate music-making with danger, having played chamber music with Jewish friends who were in continual fear of discovery and arrest. And there is certainly a heightened intensity and an urgent, emotional charge about performances given in wartime conditions as we can hear in the astonishing recordings FURTWÄNGLER made with the Berlin Philharmonic during 1942-4, which DG has just repackaged. British intelligence was puzzled at the time by the sheer quality of wartime German broadcast concerts which were technically far ahead of their time, thanks to the excellence of their recordings made on 14-inch reels of iron-oxide tape running at 30 inches per second. There are performances of great stature in these inexpensive boxes including a Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Edwin Fischer, and an imposing Mozart Symphony No. 39 as well as repertoire which one does not associate with Furtwängler: Sibelius’s En saga, full of atmosphere and mystery, and a magical account of the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Strauss’s Symphonia domestica was Furtwängler’s only recording of a longer Strauss tone poem and is superbly shaped and vividly characterised: it comes from the last concert before the Philharmonie was destroyed by Allied bombs. The other work in the same 1944 concert was the Beethoven Violin Concerto seraphically played by the Berlin Philharmonic’s leader, Erich Röhn – a very special performance indeed. Of course, not everything is inspired (Gieseking’s Schumann Concerto is curiously prosaic by his standards) but much is, including an incandescent and noble Bruckner Fifth, and some powerful Beethoven.

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There could be no greater contrast than TOSCANINI and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, whose Beethoven symphonies and Missa solemnis RCA has now released in a six-CD set. They come from the early Fifties and RCA adds an extra disc contrasting the present transfers with earlier issues. Using an astronomical analogy, one might speak, glibly no doubt, of Toscanini’s Beethoven as having the concentration of a white dwarf by the side of Furtwängler’s red giant. In any event those who want these classic and electrifying performances are going to find the sound dramatically improved, warmer and less strident. Let’s hope that Weingartner’s incomparable ‘lean-beef’ Beethoven cycle will soon be refurbished.

Olympian performances from SOLOMON return to life on Testament in altogether exemplary sound. The Beethoven concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert Menges and André Cluytens (in Nos 2 and 4) have been out many times since they were made in the Fifties, but have never sounded richer and fresher than they do here. Solomon never interposed his own personality between the composer and listener and his performances celebrate a dedication to musical truth and a timeless purity that place him among the keyboard giants. Less familiar, perhaps, are the three Mozart concertos that he recorded with the same forces, but with Otto Ackermann at the helm in K450. This is Mozart-playing of impeccable grace and incomparable style, serenity and wit. Since the Fifties when these were made, only Murray Perahia has come remotely close to them. Mandatory listening.

For younger readers, I suspect, the French conductor DÉSIRÉ-EMILE INGHELBRECHT is barely a name: understandably so, as his Debussy records have not been available since they first appeared in the Fifties. They have special claims as Inghelbrecht was closely associated with Debussy and conducted the first performances of Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien in its concert form. Three Testament CDs bring much of his Debussy repertoire including La mer, the Images, Nocturnes, La damoiselle élue, Jeux, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Le martyre.

These performances come from another age and carry that authenticity of feeling that is easier to recognise than define; Inghelbrecht is spacious and unhurried, and allows phrases time to breathe. There is not the slightest hint of glamorisation, though to be honest the quality of the orchestral playing is at times more rough than ready with some insecure ensemble and indifferent wind intonation. But there is much to learn from these readings: the ‘Gigues’ really has a wonderful breadth and space and so, too, has Jeux.

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Though Inghelbrecht brought us nearer to Debussy’s intentions, there is nothing quite like the authority of the composer himself. Pearl have given us the three records SAMUEL BARBER made for Decca in 1950 of his Cello Concerto, the Second Symphony and his Medea Suite. They reappeared in thin and scrawny sounding LP transfers in the Sixties with which I had to content myself as I wore out my originals of the Symphony and the Concerto. The ideas of the Cello Concerto have a vernal freshness and youthful innocence which still cast a spell and the Symphony, too, has great lyrical power. It is sad that the neglect of this eloquent and powerful Symphony prompted Barber to succumb to self-doubts and withdraw all but the middle movement. The transfer has plenty of presence though the pitch problems that beset the opening bars of the finale remain intractable. Strongly recommended.