Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Iphigénie en Aulide – Overture
Leon Fleisher (piano)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Hans Rosbaud [PC2]
Recorded in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne – on 27 February 1956 (PC4 & Gluck) and 18 November 1957
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: August 2009
CD No: MEDICI MASTERS
Duration: 72 minutes
As Jonathan Summers states in his excellent booklet note, Fleisher was a child-prodigy and the transition to being a mature artist was not easy. In the late forties Fleisher went to Paris for a three-year break and only returned to public performance when he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1952, an event that re-launched his career. His pianism was certainly volatile and some critics felt that he used speed and virtuosity as ends in themselves rather than as expressive tools.
On these Cologne recordings, in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto Fleisher is partnered by Hans Rosbaud, who was the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor from 1948 until his death in 1962 and is perhaps now best remembered for a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Sibelius’s tone poems with the Berlin Philharmonic. He ensures that the introduction is lithe and beautifully phrased and – heaven be praised – there is a full complement of strings. Fleisher is by contrast full of nervous energy, yet he does slow down slightly for the second subject and there is often considerable delicacy of touch and expression. But the main tempo is slightly too fast and as a result some passages sound breathless. The cadenza is Beethoven’s own and here there is too much attack and power; it sounds out of scale and hectoring.
The slow movement is a real hotchpotch and, as in the first movement, there isn’t a sense of line to hold the interpretation together. Neither the conductor nor the soloist seems able to keep to the opening flowing tempo; although Fleisher is reasonably poetic in the first theme, after that things become matter-of-fact, until the coda, when he slows right down and gives what sounds like a beautifully poetic account of a Chopin Nocturne! Beethoven marked the finale Molto allegro. Fleisher is marginally too fast; this is almost presto and for a lot of the time the music-making is driven and humourless.
However the Fourth Piano Concerto has that great Beethoven conductor Otto Klemperer at the helm. Perhaps due to his influence, this performance inhabits a totally different expressive universe. The opening movement is quite swift, but never hurried; throughout the orchestral exposition there are slight and seamlessly integrated tempo changes. As the movement progresses Klemperer allows Fleisher to linger over crucial points and transitional passages, without line, flow and concentration being compromised – the music lives and breathes. The word “allows” may sound strange – after all this is a concerto. Yet one senses that Klemperer is in charge and Fleisher is a much more controlled yet responsive pianist with a firm hand guiding him. In the more popular of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenzas Fleisher restrains his virtuoso instincts, but this doesn’t stop him producing a kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, rhythmic inflections and emphases and a real sense of command and power.
As you would expect with Klemperer, the slow movement’s string chords are powerfully emphatic and Fleisher is beautifully placatory, even if he doesn’t quite encompass the spiritual depths of, say, Gilels with Leopold Ludwig, Kovacevich and Colin Davis, or Richter-Haaser with Kertész. Rather curiously he also slightly underplays the trills that celebrate the piano’s ‘victory’ over the orchestra.
Klemperer launches the finale at a slightly slower tempo than the one Fleisher adopts, but once again everything coheres, and the tension is creative rather than disruptive. The marginal relaxation of speed in the second subject is very affecting and there is a sense of imaginative re-creation in every bar; the coda is fast with a startlingly emphatic last chord. In an ideal world, the first theme might have had a bit more bounce and an occasional smile in the phrasing wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nonetheless this is an imperious account of the greatest of all piano concertos and one I would not want to be without.
The fill up is a magnificently trenchant and grandiose account of the Gluck Overture, pretty well played.
Sound-wise everything is fine. For some tastes the piano will be too far forward, but there is hardly any distortion and there is a sense of the hall’s acoustic. There is absolutely no audience noise or applause; presumably these concerts were broadcast without an audience.