BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73 "Emperor." Piano
Sonata No. 21 in C, op. 53 "Waldstein." Piano Sonata No. 26 in
E-flat, op. 81a "Les Adieux."
Solomon Cutner (piano); The Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges.
Pristine Audio PASC 353 (MONO) TT: 77:11.
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Vive l'empereur! Heil Waldstein! Pristine crosses the finish with a roar
in its final installment of Solomon's Beethoven piano concerto cycle. I
have worried in previous reviews that Solomon might not have the sufficient
vulgarity to play the Emperor. Of the cycle, probably my least favorite
(I'm perverse), it seems to move me only when a pianist fully commits to
its bombast. Solomon had struck me with his elegance and lyricism, two
qualities you can have too much of in certain works -- like this one, Beethoven's
essay in piano virtuosity. From the opening bars and its skyrocket arpeggios,
he designs the concerto to overwhelm the audience.
Solomon's hands give the concerto both interpretive sophistication and
plenty of mojo. Much of his ingenuity comes down to a perceptive judgment
of what to leave to the orchestra. For example, in the intro's "rockets'
red glare," the orchestra launches the fireworks with a boom, while
Solomon lyrically comments, even managing a perfect diminuendo. Indeed,
during most of the first movement, the orchestra gives the "public
face" of heroism and Solomon the meditative one. Thus, when the pianist
takes the lead, the ramp-up makes all that much bigger a stir. Such contrast
rarely succeeds in general, since it can sound like orchestra and soloist
haven't found themselves on the same interpretive page. Here, however,
the collaboration between Solomon and Menges is so tight that the entire
movement seems conceived as an entirety, rather than as a bunch of "magic
moments," although you get plenty of those, particularly at the piano "scintillation" of
the B theme.
Menges's opening to the second movement convinces me of his greatness
as a Beethoven conductor as he perfectly captures the elusive simplicity
the Beethoven "spiritual" chorale. Solomon glides in after
him, smooth as a swan on a lake, with that kind of stillness. The singing
easily bog down, but both performers keep up a gentle push. The transition
to the third movement yields the only disappointment in the entire concerto
-- too raggedy, the string plinks all over the place. They probably went
for an improvisatory effect, but the coordination broke down. However,
Solomon rebounds with his entrance, full-blooded and, considering his
previous restraint, the equivalent of a roar. Unlike many interpretations,
movement becomes simultaneously powerful and buoyant, which trades in
grandiosity for genuine grandeur.
For me, too many Emperors come cut from the same cloth, and I have little
to no reason to prefer one to another. A truly original, non-bizarre interpretation
you rarely run into. Solomon and Menges strike a unique balance between
Romantic ardor and classical mesure. In fact, it has begun to
push me toward a more complex view of both the concerto and Beethoven
in general. I think
of Beethoven as a composer of "edges" --abrupt transitions,
rough, sharp contrasts, and so on, at odds with a suave approach. Yet
and Menges bring it off and, doing so, take off the curse of crude manipulation
from the score.
The first Beethoven piano sonata I ever heard neither the Pathétique or the Moonlight, the Waldstein knocked me on my tush and hasn't yet let
me up. Schnabel played, and his interpretation has remained my touchstone,
not only because I think it terrific but because I know it longest and
best. Briefly, Schnabel drives the first movement and creates a quasi-improvisatory
second which leads to a roller-coaster ride to the end of the third. The
Waldstein, one of the harder sonatas, leads Schnabel into his share of
splats. However, he plays as if in the grip of the thing, possibly because
he would run into outright disaster if he let go. Nevertheless, this grip
translates into a kind of obsession, which works for this sonata.
Technique is never Solomon's problem. The speed and clarity of his runs
amaze, and with a powerful, golden tone, besides. Furthermore, he takes
the fiendish first movement as fast as I believe I've ever heard it and
nails the tough parts (the octave fanfare idea, for example). He propels
the quick sections, beautifully relaxes in the lyrical ones. Unlike Schnabel,
he seems in complete control, avoiding the former's desperate vibe for
pure exhilaration. Conceptually, the second movement strikes me as the
most difficult, for it seems to reside in a half-way place between song
and recitative. Schnabel finds himself closer to recitative, Solomon to
song. The transition to the finale is tricky, although many pianists do
well enough, Solomon among them, but Schnabel really gets it. Once Solomon
hits the finale, he's at his best, paradoxically restrained in tempo and
headlong in rhythm. Lights and shades fill his phrases. This isn't all
hit-and-run. We get gorgeous diminuendos and crescendos as well as varieties
of touch and tone, from delicate to muscular, but it avoids the precious,
as the coda's speed-up amply demonstrates.
I'm currently cooling off toward the Les Adieux sonata, although I recognize
it as one of Beethoven's most radically-conceived sonatas, proceeding on
drama and mood rather than on pure structure, the sonata equivalent of
the Pastorale Symphony. In three movements -- "Farewell," "Absence," and "Reunion," it
commemorates Beethoven's friend and patron's, Archduke Rudolph, escape
from Vienna as Napoleon's armies approached the city and the archduke's
eventual return. "Farewell" is tender, "Absence" rolls
in misery, and "Reunion" gets giddy. For me, the work anticipates
Wagner. My failure to respond may come down to the fact that I've listened
to it too many times after the Waldstein. Scores go in and out all the
time for me, so I'm fairly confident that one day I'll hook into it again.
Whatever my indifference to the score, it doesn't stem from Solomon, who
delivers one of the most beautiful Les Adieux I've heard. Again,
one notes the balance between Classical restraint and Romantic ardor. "Absence" is
most affecting, while "Reunion" is practically pure rush.
All these recordings are mono, but they come from the tail of Solomon's
career -- early to mid-Fifties -- so the bases are actually pretty good,
especially that of the Emperor. Pristine aims
not only to clean up noise and recording vagaries but to produce as good
a sound as possible -- to
get the most music out of the grooves. It has applied its XR "ambient
stereo" recording process, which I find misnamed. It doesn't produce
a left-right distribution, unlike the horrors of electronic stereo, but
rather emphasizes the ambience of the recording, "rounds out" what
you hear -- a "front-to-back" enhancement. A beautiful disc.
S.G.S. (March 2014)