Beethoven: Piano Concertos and Choral Fantasy review – reissued reminder of a peerless pianist

Rudolf Serkin/Bavarian RSO/Rafael Kubelík
(Orfeo, three CDs)
This recording of Serkin from 1977 highlights a 20th-century great who brought musical purpose and intellectual rigour to every detail

Rudolf Serkin ranks among the greatest of 20th-century pianists; his repertoire ranged from Bach to Reger, but Beethoven was always at its very heart. In a career of well over half a century, he made numerous recordings of the piano concertos, but only two studio sets of all five – with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1950s, and another in Boston 30 years later, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony. I heard Serkin live only a handful of times, all of them remarkable occasions, but those who were able to follow him more regularly always maintained that in the recording studio his playing seemed to lose some of the intensity that it conveyed so powerfully in concert.

In the autumn of 1977, in the Herkulessaal in Munich, he played all five Beethoven concertos as well as the Choral Fantasy in a series of concerts with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelík, another musician who, like Serkin, always put himself at the service of the music. Recordings of those performances were first released on disc in 2005, but in Britain at least they seem to have disappeared quickly from the catalogue; their reissue now makes available again what is in every respect a historic musical document.

Beethoven: The Five Piano Concertos etc cover
Beethoven: Piano Concertos and Choral Fantasy cover. Photograph: Naxos

Serkin was never interested in ingratiating himself through honeyed phrases or silken tone. Instead in these interpretations there is musical purpose and intellectual rigour in every detail. Whether it’s the almost combative muscularity he brings to the piano’s first entry in the third concerto, or the instant authority of his torrential opening to the Emperor, it sets the tone for all that follows, constantly drawing equally intense responses from Kubelík and his superb orchestra. The accounts of the slow movements are just as remarkable; there’s a hymn-like calm to the Largo of the third, a consoling sweetness to the fourth’s exchanges between the soloist and the orchestra. All are in short, remarkable performances, not only among the finest available on disc, but further reminders of just how peerless a Beethoven interpreter Serkin was.

This week’s other picks

There are new instalments this month in two continuing surveys of the Beethoven piano sonatas. On BIS, Andreas Haefliger groups together the three sonatas of Op 31, and plays them without any self-indulgence, but with a finely calculated combination of exuberant bravura and beautifully controlled introspection.

For Hyperion, Angela Hewitt pairs the two mightiest of the late sonatas, Op 106 in B flat, the Hammerklavier, and Op 111, in C minor. She brings all her textural clarity to the fugal sections of the Hammerklavier, with no lack of weight in its great climaxes, even if the slow movement seems rather episodic at times, while Op 111 moves through its numinous final variations with total assurance.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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