BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37 (STEREO). Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58 (MONO).
Solomon Cutner (piano); The Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges (No. 3), André Cluytens.
Pristine Audio PASC 351 TT: 69:10.

Aristocratic Beethoven. More from Pristine's Beethoven concerto cycle with the British pianist Solomon (as he billed himself), this time with my favorite Beethoven piano concerto, the Fourth. I don't often have a hands-down "favorite" anything, since I prefer to look at a work on its own terms. I characterize each Beethoven piano concerto slightly differently: No. 1, the best Mozart concerto not by Mozart; No. 2, a superior Mozart concerto; No. 3, Sturm und Drang; No. 4, lyrical; No. 5, virtuoso.

Solomon's chief characteristics in his traversal are his elegance of touch and phrasing. These generally serve him very well indeed. I have to admit that I like his Third the least of the cycle, but that's because I view the work fundamentally differently in character than he does.

First, for me, the Third updates Mozart's Concerto No. 24, also in c-minor, one of that composer's darkest and in many ways a foreshadowing of Beethoven's c-minor manner. Second, Beethoven had already written the Pathétique, Moonlight, and Tempest piano sonatas. The Violin Sonata No. 9 (Kreutzer) comes from around the same time as the concerto. All of these works share a tempestuous mood and aim for Romantic sublimity, rather than classical balance. Solomon simply isn't vulgar enough for me in the Third.

However, rather than complain about why Solomon's interpretation isn't mine, I'd prefer to talk about how well he carries through his conception of the score. When I say "his conception," I use shorthand, for I should also mention the conductor, Herbert Menges, since I have no way to know who took the lead here. At any rate, both Solomon and Menges seem on the same page, in that both shade most of the concerto toward the Mozartean. They observe Beethoven's contrasts, but don't make them as sharp as most others do. Menges's first-movement orchestral exposition, a model of the whole movement, builds from quiet neutrality to greater and greater tension, although the latter lacks all the drama one normally expects. Solomon, for the most part, stresses pianistic elegance, with gorgeous runs and an almost intimate conversation with the orchestra and the listener. Near the very end of the movement, the cadenza (not Beethoven's own, but Clara Schumann's -- and very good it is, too) changes all this. Despite its stylistic inconsistency, Solomon rips into it, emphasizing its futuristic modulations and wildness of expression. We end the first movement in the middle of Romantic storms.

From the first chord of the second movement, Solomon suspends time. He stretches out his phrases almost to, but not past, the breaking point. Even though they take the work at an extremely slow tempo, neither Solomon nor Menges gets stuck. In Solomon's hands, some passages seem to presage Chopin nocturnes. Equally impressive is the pianist's knowledge of when to step back and accompany, particularly in the duet between flute and bassoon, and when to reassert himself, stepping up at exactly the right moment at the end of that duet. You rarely find such chamber-playing alertness in a virtuoso.

I'd characterize Solomon's handling of the finale as "merry," rather than the usual "waspish." This definitely fits the scherzo-ish coda better. Again, Solomon emphasizes the lightness of the music and lets its power take care of itself. This interpretation may not suit everybody, but one cannot dismiss its detail, sensitivity, and historical awareness.

If you ask me (and you haven't), I'll tell you that the Fourth ranks as my favorite of the five concerti. I spent a year studying the score and know it in detail like no other. The most tightly-composed of the five, the concerto -- or almost all of it -- grows out of the opening measures for solo piano. Yet it sounds lyrical and memorable rather than pedantic. When Leonard Bernstein talks about Beethoven's "inevitability," I always think of this concerto -- superbly planned, but expressively fresh. Solomon proves himself more than equal to the challenge, giving one of the very best performances of this concerto I've heard. From the remarkable solo that opens the work, Solomon reveals not only a deep understanding of its components, but also the ability to weave a poetic statement. Given his traversals of the previous three concerto, I find odd but welcome Solomon's embrace of more muscular playing when called for. It's power without pounding, however.

Beethoven's second movement astounded the Nineteenth Century. No concerto had a movement like this before, and up to the Modern era, few after. Liszt compared it to Orpheus taming the savage beasts. Essentially an arioso recitative, it alternates growls from the orchestra with tender answers from the solo piano. Solomon impresses here with complete mastery over low dynamics -- pianissimo to piano in its first statement, mezzo-piano to slightly less than piano in the second, and so on. He reaches a brief high of mezzo-forte and immediately and gracefully comes back down to pianissimo.

Those who have paid attention will recognize the main subject of the third-movement rondo as a variant of the piano's very first phrase in the opening movement. It also has the unusual distinction of beginning in one key (C major) and magically transforming somewhere in its middle to another (G major). It drives forward, and Solomon puts out plenty of wattage, turning glittering runs into pure power.

Unfortunately, Cluytens fails to match his soloist. Under his baton, the Philharmonia is turgid and rhythmically sloppy, if you can believe it of one of the great British orchestras of the time, and all of Pristine's technical wizardry cannot save its bacon. Menges has the advantage of stereo, but even so, he gets crisp attacks and sharp rhythms from the orchestra. Cluytens does best in the slow movement, as he tries to match Solomon's dynamics, but in general he keeps the pianist's stunning performance from achieving what should have been one of the greatest recorded renditions of this concerto. Nevertheless, I believe any Beethoven headbanger would want to share in Solomon's insight into the score.

S.G.S. (February 2014)