BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, op. 15 (STEREO). Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, op. 19 (MONO).
Solomon Cutner (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges (No. 1), André Cluytens.
Pristine Audio PASC 345 TT: 62:23.

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Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The English pianist Solomon, as he billed himself professionally, has flown mostly under the radar of classical-music lovers outside Britain. I'm not sure why, although this situation has recently begun to undergo correction. Perhaps his obscurity stems from the stroke he suffered in 1956, which froze his right arm. Although he lived another 32 years, he never performed in public again. During his absence, other pianists came to notice, and the lack of Solomon recordings in new formats put him further in the shade.

I first heard him in his classic recording of the Arthur Bliss Piano Concerto. It didn't impress me, but my dissatisfaction arose from the piece itself as well as from the muddy EMI sound. The Beethoven recordings issued by Pristine reveal one of the finest pianists of the previous century and one of the great Beethoven pianists, period.

It so happens that Beethoven's first piano concerto (EMI, with Schnabel and Sargent) introduced me to the cycle. Up until I heard Solomon, Schnabel's was my favorite performance. The two earliest piano concerti don't get the respect of the latter three, but those three blaze new trails. One could trace almost the rest of the Nineteenth Century's piano concerti to one of them -- the Schumann to No. 4, the Brahms to No. 3, the Tchaikovsky to No. 5, for example. However, numbers 1 and 2 represent supreme examples of the Mozartean concerto, particularly the "martial" concerto. Mozart wrote many different kinds of concerto -- martial, pastorale, buffa, and so on -- but Beethoven pretty much stuck to the one subgenre, although he expanded its musical and expressive range. Concerto No. 1 (actually written after the designated second) asks the question, "What's not to like?" Its witty outer movements brim full of surprising turns and themes of high invention, a bit like Papageno's music in Zauberflöte, while the stunning largo ponders, to paraphrase Blake, eternity in a moment -- the mood of the slow movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 21. Although more tightly bound to the immediate past, Concerto No. 2 nevertheless revealed Beethoven as the composer to watch. The themes follow classical models more closely, but Beethoven kicks them over like sand castles in his treatment of them, as early as the first paragraph of the first movement. He breaks up the boxiness of the phrasing not only with rough syncopation but with wild modulations to distant keys. The second movement strikes me as a rehearsal of the largo of the official First, a "pathetic" opera aria for piano and a good example of its type, but without the latter's special transcendence. The third movement rondo is a symphonic view-halloo, a rapturous ride through the pastoral landscape. Based on what Solomon does in these two works, you can safely bet that his Mozart will be wonderful as well.

Let me say first that Solomon's interpretations of both concerti have become my new favorites, surpassing even the Schnabel/Sargent No. 1. He gives both a Mozartean elegance, with a beauty of tone that out-pretties Van Cliburn in the Tchaikovsky, while maintaining a profound understanding of what he plays. His touch is yummy, his runs like perfect little diamonds. A superb concerto partner, he always occupies the most appropriate place in the texture, but he also stands out in the concerti's cadenzas, especially that of the Second's first movement -- a fugato, composed years after the concerto itself, and thus perhaps a bit jarring. It would be picky to complain, however. It's almost a sonata movement in itself, with a wonderful idea that reminds me of Wile E. Coyote spasmodically scrabbling for a hold in thin air as he falls the usual impossible distance.

However, a great concerto performance means to me a great partnership between solo and orchestra. Herbert Menges seems to me a great conductor overlooked among the talent in England. He matches Solomon elegant point for elegant point in the Concerto No. 1. André Cluytens is bit looser, but perhaps a bit warmer as well. On the other hand, Menges has the advantage of a beautifully clear stereo image. Unfortunately, stereo came in at the end of Solomon's career. There can't be many more such recordings. In the weeks to come, however, I will review Pristine's complete Solomon-Beethoven concerto cycle.

Andrew Rose has made it Pristine's mission to offer recordings of historically-important recordings in the best possible sound. The stereo EMI recording has been restored to probably better-than-new, while the mono Second Concerto avoids the flat tinny-ness associated with "historical" recordings. It sings, as I have hinted, in a warm, round tone.


S.G.S. (January 2014)