BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15. Piano Concerto No. 2 in
B flat, Op. 19
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Piano Concerto No.
4 in G, Op. 58.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 55 "Emperor." Piano Sonbata
No. 21 in C, Op. 53 "Waldstein." Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat, Op. 81a
RAVEL: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Paul Wittgenstein,
piano/Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Bruno Walter, cond. BRITTEN:
Diversions for Left Hand Piano and Orchrestra, Op. 21 (Julius Katchen,
piano/London Symphony Orch/Benjamin Britten, cond.).
LIPATTI: Sonatina for the Left Hand (Dinu Lipatti, piano)
Pristine Audio surely is doing their bit to provide collectors with historic recordings of Beethoven piano concertos! Already they have issued all five played by Artur Schnabel (also all 32 piano sonatas) and Wilhelm Backhaus, as well as individual concertos played by Arthur Rubinstein, Mewton-Wood, Paul :Badura-Skoda, Robert Casadesus, Mark Hambourg, Clifford Curzon, Friedrich Wührer, and Hans Kahn. Now they have added all five in the historic performances made by Solomon 1952-1955.
British pianist Solomon Cutner (professionally he was known as "Solomon") was born in 1902, recognized as a child prodigy, and made his first concert appearance at the age of 10. When a teenager, he stopped performing to continue his studies, returning to the concert stage when he was 20. He soon was recognized everywhere in the musical world, and gave many concerts both in recital and with leading orchestras. At the peak of his career in 1958, he suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed his right arm, although he lived another 32 years. He specialized in Beethoven and started recording all of the sonatas, a project never completed because of his injury, although prior to that time there were broadcasts of all 32. EMI planned to record all of the concertos and wanted to have Wilhelm Furtwängler on the podium, but Solomon didn't agree to this because of the conductor's alleged Nazi association, so the concertos were recorded with Herbert Menges (Nos. 1, 3 and 5, recorded 1955/1956 stereo) and André Cluytens (recorded 1952 mono). Solomon is assured and insightful, a major pianist at his best; it is unfortunate the conductors aren't of the same level. The Philharmonia plays very well indeed, but there could have been a bit more vigor from the podium. British conductor Herbert Menges (1902-1972) had a modest career and was best known as a composer; he wrote incidental music for all of Shakespeare's plays. Frenchman André Cluytens had much better credentials, recording prolifically, primarily French opera, but he also recorded all of Beethoven's symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. Pristine has done their usual superb job of making these recordings sound better than before, providing effective "ambient stereo" for the two mono recordings.
Austrian-born pianist Paul Wittgentein (1887-1961) came from a highly musical family and had a modest career as a pianist until a military injury in 1914 resulted in amputation of his right hand.British pianisst Cyril Smith (1909-1974) had a somehwhat similar misfortune. Smith had a distinguished career (he was one of the first to record Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3. A stroke in 1956 made it impossible for him to use his right hand. Undaunted, he continued to perform works for three hands, the other two belonging to his wife, Phyllis Sellick; they commissioned several works including Malclm Arnold's delightful Concerto, Op. 104, and made a stunning recording of it. Wittgenstein was equally determined to continue his career and commissioned works for left hand piano from many major composers including Richard Strauss, Korngold, Prokofiev, Britten, Schmidt, and Hindemith. However, he played few of these. He told Prokofiev he "didn't understand" his Concerto No. 4 and wouldn't play it until he did—which never happened. He intensely disliked Hindemith's Op. 29 and kept the score hidden; it wasn't until 2002 it had its premiere (there is a superb recording by Leon Fleisher (REVIEW). Wittgenstein made some changes in Ravel's concerto angering the composer, who had nothing to do with Wittgenstein afterwards. This Membran CD offers Wittgenstein's live performance of the Ravel concerto with Bruno Walter and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, February 28, 1937. This has appeared before on CD; it was mentioned on this site when included in the superb first volume of Anthology of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (REVIEW). It is a dismal performance. Wittgenstein's playing is mediocre; this is of historic interest only.
Another work commissioned by Wittgenstein was Benjamin Britten's brilliant Diversions, Op. 29. This CD features the spectacular performance recorded in 1954 for Decca by Julius Katchen with the composer conducting the London Symphony. This is a wonderful work not played very often for obvious reasons. The Katchen recording is readily available, as are versions featuring pianists Leon Fleisher and Stephen Osborne. Continuing with the left hand focus of this new CD, we have Dinu Lipatti's Sonatina for the Left Hand recorded by the composer in 1943. The Romanian pianist (1917-1950) also had a tragic life. He died from Hodgkin's disease when he was at the height of his career. The Sonatina doesn't amount to much. Written in 1941 as a double birthday present for his teacher Mihail Jorat and his godfather Georges Enesco, it hardly suggests the stature of Lipatti. It is said Lipatti wrote it for one hand because of the limited supply of manuscript paper. The booklet lists it as having a playing time of 2:07; actual timing is 7:56. There is no reason to get this CD.
Another note of interest regarding pianists known for their left-hand dexterity. Leon Fleisher (b. 1928) had a fabulous career and recorded magnificent performances of concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and other composers, usually with George Szell conducting. In the early '60s, Fleisher developed focal dystonia in his right hand, and could only perform with his left hand. Fortunatyely in recent years after intensive treatment, he has regained use of his right hand and remains to this day a major pianist. Over the years I have Leon Fleisher and he related an interesting story many years ago when he was my guest on a Baltimore public radio station during a fund-raising marathon. Fleisher was a delightful, humorous guest and he told the story of how some years before he was on a BBC program when he was asked to listen to a recording and tell listeners how many hands were playing. Fleisher said he thought it was a trick question; obviously it wasn't two hands, but how many, or could it be just one? The recording played was Simon Barerer's live performance in Carnegie Hall of Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand, which is an astounding display of 5-digit virtuosity that sounds indeed like at least two hands.
R.E.B. (January 2013)