WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau (piano), etc; Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink, New Philharmonia/Eliahu Inbal
CATALOGUE NO: 462 358-2 Reissue (1962-85)
Some pianists arouse such idolatry that to criticise them at all is to arouse the moral indignation of their idolators. Arrau was one such, and in the light of this extraordinarily bountiful set it’s not hard to see why. He wasn’t always happy in the recording studio – though he was much recorded – and it sometimes showed. Nor, despite the best efforts of the Philips engineers, did many of the discs he made in the Sixties fully catch quite the range of sonority that he often achieved in concert. That said, most of these recordings do reflect the extraordinary nobility of his sound, and the remastering is indeed masterly. Not everything here is easy going, often by Arrau’s own choice. A profound musician with a penetrating intellect and an exceptionally wide culture, he was never one to prettify life, any more than Beethoven was. His seriousness is never for a moment in doubt, and if there’s any dimension of Beethoven’s character that sometimes seems to elude him, it’s a certain element of humour (though the wit he brings to the so-called Eroica Variations is deliciously deadpan). Occasionally, too, his playing could sound mannered and didactic, as in the strange rhythmic compressions which prove fleetingly distracting in the finale of Op. 2/3 (partly because their purpose is so unclear), and there are moments when metre and rhythm coincide rather ponderously.
It can take a little time, and the most careful attention, to get on his wavelength, as it were, but when you succeed, a treasure-house of discoveries, pleasures and insights awaits you. Without recourse to exaggeration or idiosyncrasy he manages to breathe fresh life into such familiar masterpieces as the Pathétique and the Appassionata Sonatas, so that it feels almost as though you’re hearing them for the first time (and that’s no mean trick). The beauty and continuity of line, the many-faceted and illuminating command of changing textures, the breadth of structural span deriving from the strength of his harmonic sense, all these combine here in the service of music whose spiritual and intellectual range is unique in pianistic history. At his greatest, as in the last sonatas, Arrau transcended the role of interpreter and puts you in direct communication with the composer.