Serkin’s Beethoven Concertos Top a Crowded Field

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It isn’t often that I completely reverse my position on any specific performance of the standard repertoire, particularly in the case of Beethoven who has been a specific fascination of mine since the age of 14. At 17 I bought the Schirmer scores of the complete piano sonatas (the sheet music store had had a fire, most of their stock had gotten waterlogged or smoke-tinged, so I got both books very cheaply—and I still own them), tried to play parts of them myself, and have pretty much lived with those scores ever since. My love for the piano concertos came later, but not too much later, after I had discovered and learned to love the symphonies.

But the other day I was surfing through available performances of the piano concertos and ran across these performances by Rudolf Serkin and Eugene Ormandy. Of course I had read about them when I was growing up, but informed critical opinion told me that they weren’t top-notch, that Serkin’s approach to Beethoven was clean but uninteresting and Ormandy was more of a “perfunctory” accompanist than an imaginative one. They said that I should be listening to Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff or Leon Fleisher. I liked Schnabel’s playing but was not very happy with the stiff, almost clumsy playing of the orchestra (I later learned that they had inadequate rehearsal for the recording sessions). I didn’t like Wilhelm Kempff at all: he was too fussy and mannered, and his accompanist (Ferdinand Leitner) was really stiff and uninteresting. So I settled on Fleisher-Szell and was relatively happy with that..

Anyway, in my excursion into other Beethoven concertos I listened to and liked—to a point—the Wilhlem Backhaus/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt performances, but eventually gave up on them because of the pianist’s fussy mannerisms such as beginning passages slowly and gradually working them “up to speed,” or slowing down arbitrarily in the midst of a passage, and the Emil Gilels-Kurt Masur live performances of the 1970s, but the more I listened to them the more I felt that, as bracing and well-driven as they are, Gilels never really got “inside” the music. Then, just for the heck of it, I sampled Serkin—and was completely blown away.

What in the name of God almighty were the critics complaining about? I don’t hear a small-scale Mozart pianist out of his depth, which is what many of them said, not even a little bit. I hear a pianist fully in command of not just the music but the mood of the music at every turn.. He is as exciting as Gilels but more more nuanced in his playing. More importantly, every note in every phrase sounds as if his life depended on getting that music out. He just absolutely slays these concertos with an emotional blowtorch, yet never steps outside the bounds of good taste. His slow movements are exquisite, yet also never forego deep emotional connection. In short, he is perfect for these concertos. Better than Schnabel of sainted memory, better than Fleisher (sorry, Leon), better than Backhaus, Perahia, Kissin, Brendel, Gulda, Katchen, Vladar or Zacharias, who I’ve also heard. And that’s some field to beat.

eugene-ormandyBut then there is Ormandy, and for the life of me I’ve never understood why the music critics of my youth went out of their way to dump on him as much as they did. I always loved him as a Tchaikovsky conductor, particularly the ballets, and I also still admire his recordings of Holst’s Planets and Mahler’s Second Symphony as among the best. But I never quite thought to sample his Beethoven because that was the mountain that Toscanini, Szell and Steinberg sat atop, particularly in the symphonies. Well, imagine my shock to discover that in these concertos, Ormandy was channeling his inner Toscanini. His performances here have not only a drive but lift and an exalted enthusiasm that no one else matches—not even Toscanini in his recordings of the First and Third Concertos, and that’s going some. The Philadelphia Orchestra plays as if possessed under his direction. Just to point out one example, I’ve never heard any other conductor, not even Haitink, Szell, Schmidt-Isserstedt or Levine, give a performance of the Second Concerto with as much drive and excitement as this.

The fly in the ointment, so so speak, with Serkin’s studio-recorded Beethoven concertos is that the third and fifth are conducted by Bernstein, who is good but not quite on the same exalted level as Ormandy. He is a bit too fussy, italicizing certain phrases to the expense of forward momentum. Ah, but we have the Internet to the rescue, because as it turns out there are live performances of Serkin playing the Third and Fifth Concertos with Ormandy, and these are even a shade more exciting than the studio recordings of the other three. Thus we can get all five concertos with the same conductor and orchestra.

By way of an addendum, I did like the Serkin-Bernstein recording of the oft-snubbed “Choral Fantasy.” After listening to at least a dozen other performances, the only ones I liked were the Ania Dorfmann-Toscanini version (but much more for Toscanini than the pianist) and the Friedrich Wührer-Clemens Krauss recording, both mono. None of the stereo or digital recordings I listened to had any oomph to them…except Serkin-Bernstein. This, too, takes off like a rocket, in large measure because most of the piece is solo piano or piano with orchestra (the chorus doesn’t enter until the last four minutes), and by the time the chorus does come in Serkin has already worked up a good head of steam.

So I’m going to revise my recommendations for these works in the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide, and I strong recommend that you at least check out Serkin-Ormandy and judge for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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