BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58. Piano Concerto
No. 5 in E-flat "Emperor," op. 73.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Clemens Krauss.
Pristine Classics PASC 333 MONO TT: 70:11.
(Available from PRISTINE CLASSICAL
Inconsistent Fourth, decent Fifth. In my callow youth, I could leave most
of Beethoven alone. I tended to like the very dramatic work, like the Fifth
Symphony, the Pathétique, Moonlight, and Wallenstein piano sonatas,
the Missa Solemnis. I was, after all, a teen with my share of the usual
treacherous hormones, including rage and lust. For some reason, however,
the intimate Fourth Piano Concerto deeply appealed to me, and I spent a
year poring over the score, analyzing the thematic development and architecture
in the distant hope of one day writing something as wonderful. The hope
at this point is like the horizon -- it remains at exactly the same distance
from me now as then -- but at least I know the work in detail.
Perhaps because of my familiarity with the score, I find myself quite particular
about interpretation. I can accept a range, but only those performances
which reveal the structure of the work. More than most, this concerto demands
a collaboration of chamber-like sensitivity. Some very famous names have
disappointed me. However, to focus my thoughts, I decided to listen to
the Serkin/Ormandy and the Fleisher/Szell, among my two favorites.
From the very first note of the very first movement, Backhaus let me
down. He plays as if he can't wait to get through the solo opening. Not
does he phrase crudely, but this solo (aside from the fact that, as far
as I know, no piano concerto before this one opened with the soloist
playing all by his lonesome) contains all the material for every one
of the work's
movements. Performers need to linger a bit to give the listener a chance
to absorb the bits. Backhaus also rushes through the cadenza, with no
apparent understanding of Beethoven's piano style. I say "apparent," of
course, because Backhaus has delivered perceptive readings of other works.
In between, he seems on automatic. There's no magic here, even in the passages
where Beethoven deliberately made some. Backhaus gets no help from Clemens
Krauss and the Viennese. The string attack is as sharp as a bowl of gruel,
the tone flabby, the orchestral sound a "wad," rather than
delineating inner voices.
The extraordinary (and very brief) slow movement serves almost as an introduction
to the finale and yet makes its own memorable statement. Liszt compared
it to Orpheus taming the Furies at the entrance to Hades. Among other things,
the orchestra gets softer while the piano becomes more assertive as the
movement proceeds. Backhaus does well here, although Krauss lets him down
with insufficient control over orchestral dynamics.
Many writers have designated the rondo finale "straightforward," for
some reason. I have no idea what they mean. First, the rondo theme itself
manages to begin in one key and magically end in another, without the
ear quite knowing where the switch happened. It's as if the theme hangs
some sort of musical wormhole and slips in and out. Second, the rondo
theme varies the opening measures of the entire concerto. Backhaus does
job here, little thanks to the orchestra. He revels in the strength of
the ideas and glitters where appropriate. Stronger support from Krauss
would have helped (something that you can say for nearly every movement),
but the Vienna Phil's strings turn the strong martial rhythm of the rondo's
main idea into slurry and apparently need cattle prods to move at all.
I fuss a lot less over performances of the Concerto No. 5, a lot less
emotionally complex than its predecessor. Virtuosi seem to favor it,
if you go by numbers
of recordings. I'm sure you can find a plethora to choose from. Its nickname, "Emperor," comes
not from Beethoven, but from an English publisher many years later (in
France, "L' Empereur"). I have no idea whether it has an equivalent
German nickname or it remains good old unadorned Klavierkonzert Nr. 5.
I used Fleisher/Szell as a point of comparison, but only because it was
Right away, the Backhaus/Krauss stands out, with the Backhaus/Böhm
Second, as the best of the set. The Vienna Phil attacks twice as sharply
as usual (although still a cry from Szell's Cleveland), and Backhaus
seems to find his element in the scintillating passage-work. He also
engaged in the details of his musical line without sacrificing overall
sweep. The slow movement comes off well, but nothing better than many
other readings. The orchestra seems a bit heavy in the finale, possibly
they try and fail to accommodate the tempo Backhaus establishes. Backhaus's
usual shtick of hanging ever so slightly behind the beat works for him
here, but it seems to give Krauss and his Viennese tsores om ritmishkeit.
Part of Pristine's raison d' être is to clean up old recordings with
the latest digital technology -- making the variable pitch resulting from
different recording machines, different takes, and friction on the tape
path uniform, removing distortion, hiss, swash, woosh, and so on -- which
they do with passion and usually super results. However, the state of the
reference recording limits them. Based on that and my previous experience
with their offerings, I conclude that the 1951 Decca recording of the Fourth
probably belonged in the Chamber of Horrors of Master Victor Olof's House
of Wax -- boxy, bad balance where the orchestra routinely buried not only
their own inner voices but often the soloist as well, volume troubles.
Olof got much better results in the Fifth, recorded just two years later.
Andrew Rose does what he can with the Fourth and really burnishes the Fifth.
S.G.S. (December 2012)