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.

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 only 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 about some sort of musical wormhole and slips in and out. Second, the rondo theme varies the opening measures of the entire concerto. Backhaus does an outstanding 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 handy.

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 seems more 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 because 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)