Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 – Claudio Arrau, p./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch (4)/ Pierre Monteux (5) – West Hill Radio Archives

Arrau’s Beethoven from Tanglewood mixes strength with lucid clarity of detail, assisted by glowing colors from the BSO under its two French masters, Munch and Monteux.

Published on January 10, 2013

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 – Claudio Arrau, p./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch (4)/ Pierre Monteux (5) – West Hill Radio Archives

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor” – Claudio Arrau, p./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch (Op. 58)/ Pierre Monteux (Op. 73) – West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6047, 65:00 [] ****:

Chilean piano virtuoso Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), despite his Latin origins, represented a particular Germanic tradition in his playing; Arrau had always high praise for his one supreme influence, Martin Krause (1853-1918) as the dispenser of both pedagogical gifts and the mainstream Berlin experience. Prior to his late period, marked by slow tempos and exaggerated smoothness of line, a hard objectivity marked Arrau’s style, feline in its suave and angular flexibility of tone and contour, but no less informed by grace and romantic ardor. For power of expression and clarity of melodic and harmonic detail, Arrau had few peers. He could unleash the tiger in Beethoven as easily as he could waft a feathery harmonic shift or diaphanous trill.  Stamina and control become the hallmarks of the Arrau style, always as thoughtful in conception as they were muscular in sonority.

This disc, subtitled Claudio Arrau at Tanglewood, opens with the Beethoven G Major Concerto with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (18 August 1961), a performance offering a hard patina from Arrau but warmly resonant string, wind and horn work from the BSO. While not note-perfect, the phrases have arch and interior voicing, a percussive Aeolian harp, to be sure, but coherent and architectural at all periods. The level of excitement in Arrau’s first movement cadenza remains distinctly palpable, as much for its restraint as for its liquid articulation. The volatility of expression lies in abeyance, but actively apparent in the athleticism of the long lines and seamless scales. Munch, who did not record this concerto commercially, proffers affection and intimacy while exhibiting the resonant power of this Apollinian side to the “fate” motif of the Fifth Symphony.  The second movement, 2/4, permits Arrau his understated dramatic poise a series of subdued modes that often recollect Gluck’s Orfeo, as he sings to appease the malevolent Furies. We often forget the Rondo opens in a “fanfare” C Major before it explodes into G, in which Beethoven combines the palindromic form with sonata-form development. Sturdy and eminently poised, Arrau carries the rambunctious filigree effortlessly into its alternately militant and exuberant moods. The stereo sound of the period captures the responsive wind, brass, and tympani of the BSO in their alluring extroverted colors.

The collaboration with Pierre Monteux in the Emperor Concerto (23 July 1960) enjoys any number of rhetorical flourishes and expressively dazzling effects. Monteux opts for driven, linear propulsion, the trumpets and tympani carrying the weight of the periods amidst strong flurries from the BSO strings. Expansive, the first movement’s first large orchestral tutti supplies Arrau a huge canvas upon which to wring his magic. Despite the monaural sound here, the resonance remains singularly intense, the woodwinds chirping along with Arrau’s febrile scale passages and ringing arpeggios. The bright percussion in Arrau’s chordal weighting add a startling color when he plays that series of scales in the first movement that suggest Beethoven’s disregard of musical convention; the recapitulation has Arrau going even awry as he takes off in faraway keys and must resolve the wayward transition by way of quick harmonic adjustments. The alla musette section of his “cadenza” serves as a delicacy before the virile, extended coda quite sweeps us away, eliciting unabashed applause from the Tanglewood audience.

Arrau injects a degree of rarified passion into his arched phrases in the Adagio, with its extended cantilena wafted through luxurious BSO strings and long-held woodwind chords. At the big cadence, Arrau sheds the velvet and reveals the iron paw. The step-wise motions in league with a firm trill usher into the main melody once more. We drop a half step and soon catapult into the Rondo, asserted by Arrau as a frisky dance that can achieve a luminous intensity by virtue of Beethoven’s pungent scoring. The performance becomes more Dionysiac as it proceeds, with Arrau’s asserting the left hand passages with decided vigor. Robust and splendidly exuberant, the performance emanates an athletic good nature that has infected the BSO patrons with its natural enthusiasm.

—Gary Lemco

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