Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Waltzes, Op. 39; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25. Leon Fleisher, piano; The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. Sony. $20.98 (5 CDs).
Mozart: Piano Concertos (complete); Rondos for Piano and Orchestra, K. 382 and K. 386. Murray Perahia, piano and conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Sony. $35.98 (12 CDs).
As Sony continues to delve deeper into its exceptional catalogue of great performances of great music, it comes up with some re-releases that almost any lover of classical music will want to have, no matter how many other performances of the works he or she may already own. These two outstanding piano collections are perfect examples. Leon Fleisher’s performances of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s – before Fleisher lost the use of his right hand to focal dystonia, returning to two-handed recording only in 2004 – have long been considered ne plus ultra, and this re-release shows that they deserve to be. Fleisher’s recording of the “Emperor” concerto is often referred to as legendary, and there really has been nothing else like it, before or since. The scale, the spirit, and the absolutely perfect accompaniment of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra – an ensemble that was, under Szell, one of the greatest orchestras in the world – make this a performance unlike any other. It never grows old – the mark of a true classic. And the other Beethoven concertos are marvelous, too. The first and second have an ebullient lightness that is positively Mozartean – as is clear from the wonderful performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 25, also included here. Szell had a knack for making the Cleveland Orchestra sound like a perfect chamber ensemble in Mozart’s music, and this sonic miracle is abundantly on display here. Concerto No. 3 is a transitional work in this recording, looking both back and forward – an immensely exciting approach that no one else ever quite brought off. And No. 4 simply glows, with superb give-and-take between Fleisher and the orchestra.
Fleisher’s Brahms concertos are splendid as well. No. 1 is gigantic – this is another performance often referred to, rightly, as legendary – with Szell here showing just how full-throated and broad a sound he could get from the Cleveland players, and with Fleisher’s expansiveness and drama unmatched anywhere. No. 2 is a touch less stratospheric (it was recorded in 1962, No. 1 in 1958), but this is still one of the best performances available: stately, grand and heartfelt. And Fleisher shows off both his technique and his splendid musicianship in the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Waltzes, Op. 39. The sound is quite good for its time, and the remastering is very high-quality. This would be a set to cherish at any price. At the low one at which it is available, it is an absolute must-have.
Murray Perahia’s Mozart cycle is not Olympian in the same way as Fleisher’s Beethoven and Brahms – for one thing, the sound in this remastering, although generally very fine, is not as good as in the Fleisher set: some listeners will find certain portions of it piercing or even tinny, even though the original recordings themselves were made considerably later than Fleisher’s, in the 1970s and 1980s. For another thing, Perahia makes no attempt to use historical instruments or performance practices – these are modern-instrument recordings all the way. And for a third thing, Concerto No. 7 for Three Pianos is here given in a two-piano version (which, however, is by Mozart himself, and in which Perahia is very ably joined by Radu Lupu, who also partners Perahia in No. 10 for Two Pianos).
But in the overall context of this beautifully proportioned and very well played Mozart cycle, all the criticisms seem like nitpicks. Perahia is graceful, committed, intensely pianistic and very strongly in tune (no pun intended) with Mozart’s music, and his conducting of the English Chamber Orchestra is just right, whether the ensemble is simply providing fullness and backup (as in many of the early concertos) or is a true partner in intensity and enjoyment (as in most of the late ones). Perahia’s Mozart is generally straightforward and without significant frills, but it is not cold or reserved: his involvement is palpable – or, rather, audible – but never overshadows the music. There is drama where appropriate (Nos. 9, 20 and 24, for instance), but it is never overwrought or overly Romantic. There is plenty of lightness, but nothing that sounds trivial, even in the first four concertos, which are pastiches made by Mozart from other composers’ works. And Perahia does gentle lyricism especially well, as in Nos. 12 and 19. No. 25 provides a fascinating contrast with the Fleisher recording: Perahia makes the first movement slower and weightier and the third movement more expansive; each reading has plenty of charm and power, but their overall effects are quite different in very pleasant ways. Sony is to be commended for making Perahia’s Mozart cycle a 12-disc set, which means the concertos are offered in numbered order, with each starting and finishing on the same CD – there is no irritating carryover of movements at all. Like Sony’s other re-releases of classic performances, including the Fleisher box, this one contains no booklet, liner notes or information other than timings and recording dates. But what it does contain is a plethora of splendid music-making by a top-notch pianist and excellent chamber ensemble. Listeners looking for a Mozart concerto cycle can scarcely do better than this one – it is a pleasure from the first note to the last.
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