BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. FRANCK: Symphonic Variations. RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G.
Ivan Moravec, pianist; Prague Philharmonia/Jirí Belohlávek, cond.
SUPRAPHON SU 3714-2 031 (F) (DDD) TT: 70:14

What archives have survived the record-business implosion since 1999 tell us that Moravec – the dean of Czech pianists since Rudolf Firkusny’s death in 1994 – recorded the Beethoven once before with Martin Turovsky in 1964, and the Franck in 1976 with Vacláv Neumann conducting the Czech Phil. Although he studied with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, whose Ravel G major Concerto from 1957 is enshrined as one of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century (coupled with the revised version of Rachmaninov’s Fourth, both conducted by Ettore Gracis), I could find no documentation of a previous Moravec recording of the Ravel. His 2003 remakes of Beethoven and Franck in the Rudolfinum’s Dvorák Hall at Prague have much to commend them, although I have some interpretative reservations about the Beethoven. But his Ravel is prizeworthy.

Although 73, Moravec is the Gallic boulevardier personified, especially in the first and third movements. He begins the sublime Adagio assai with more inflections than the supremely contemplative Michelangeli, but his concluding two-thirds are in the master’s mold without imitating. The surprise for me, however, was conductor Belohlávek’s hand-in-glove jauntiness elsewhere, and the 10-year-old Prague Philharmonia’s glittering accompaniment. Certainly I’m not going to give away (or auction on Ebay) the made-in-Heaven collaboration of Jean-Philippe Collard and Lorin Maazel with the French National Orchestra on a pre-digital, 1979 EMI CD, which adds the Left-Hand Concerto, Pavane, Jeux d’eau and solo piano version of La valse (the latter three recorded by Collard in 1980). But the new Moravec, as well as bracingly played, is so vividly and spaciously recorded by Supraphon’s team under producer Petr Vit, it stays in house.

The Franck is a strong, almost muscular statement of music that too often sounds effete (I say that as one who dislikes Franck’s music in general, verging on detestation in certain works), and here again Belohlávaik and the Prague Philharmonia match Moravec in spirit and virtuosity, resoundingly recorded. It’s Beethoven that gave me pause, however, despite a hushed solo performance (albeit pedaled) of the slow movement that altogether properly tames the orchestra. The first movement has a cadenza, alleged by the annotator to be one of two that Beethoven composed (but one I’ve never heard live or on discs) that simply won’t quit, although it is virtually the same length as the standard one that Schnabel recorded 70 years ago (happily available in a Mark Obert-Thorn transfer on Naxos). But small affectations already mar the opening piano solo – nothing gross, Moravec is too refined an artist – but his style is more Mozartean, in the finale especially, than traditionally Beethovenian. You may prefer to hear the G- major Concerto this way, so I’ll leave it to your judgment, although mine is qualified. Ah, but there’s that insouciant Ravel and keepable Franck.

In any event, it’s good to have Moravec back, and furthermore in such distinguished company.

R.D. (April 2004)