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.

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 of the Beethoven "spiritual" chorale. Solomon glides in after him, smooth as a swan on a lake, with that kind of stillness. The singing could 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, the entire 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 Solomon 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)