Artur Balsam, piano/ Winterthur Symphony Orchestra/ Walter Goehr (Mozart K. 246)/ Clemens Dahinden (Beethoven)/ Otto Ackerman (Hummel)/ Victor Desarzens (Bach)/ Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra/ Henry Swoboda (Mozart K. 413)
Bridge 9196A/B 2-CDs, 65:22; 75:50 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
While it was Gerald Moore who proclaimed himself “The Unabashed Accompanist,” the career of Polish piano virtuoso Artur Balsam (1906-1994) also deserves note, especially as Yehudi Menuhin called him “one of the best musicians I have known.” A pupil of Boerner, Lewandowski, and Schnabel, Balsam enjoyed an international prestige as accompanist to some of the great string players, such as Erica Morini, Roman Totenberg, Szymon Goldberg, Nathan Milstein, and Zino Francescatti, and such capable fellow pianists as Nadia Reisenberg. He worked with the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, and he can seen as well as heard in the video kinescope of Toscanini’s Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes. Musically, Balsam enjoys the same repute accorded fellow Pole Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Bridge permits Balsam his due with this reissue of his 1950s (no exact dates are provided) survey of piano concertos for the Concert Hall label, of which he inscribed sixteen concerti–maybe they’ll do the same for Shura Cherkassky–which had already become scarce in the early 1960s when I started to collect records.
Among the five treasures resurrected here we have one of the earliest–if not the premier–inscription of the Beethoven D Major Concerto (1807) – his own arrangement of the Violin Concerto – allowing his own keyboard technique–that demonstrated in the G Major Concerto penned a year earlier–to shine, especially in the delicacy of the writing and left-hand tracery, although the tutti sections remain huge. The concerto’s opening bars provide fodder for the extended cadenza (with tympani ostinato) whose improvisatory passages point to the two Fantasias, Opp. 77 and 80. Grand, sweeping arpeggios and galant runs carry us along, the five beats of the tympani a constant companion; then a pregnant trill and the main theme of the concerto played as a series of musical puns. The G Major theme and variations enchants in pearly, music-box song and noble phrasing; the Rondo sparkles, especially as Beethoven writes in any number of trills and syncopations to keep our musical interest.
Of the remaining four concertos, each played superbly and in truly resonant sound, the Hummel Concerto in A Minor was Balsam’s personal favorite. The extraordinary songfulness of the musical lines confirms Hummel’s status as the link between Mozart and Chopin, especially the use of florid ornaments and the bel canto approach to instrumental voicing. The melodies have a dainty charm, one of which sounds like a variant of Now We’ll Gather at the River. The rich fioritura proves eminently plastic under Balsam, and we gain an inkling of how his Gottschalk might have played. For the small but impressive discography of Roumanian-born conductor Otto Ackerman (1909-1960), this intricately lovely collaboration is worth its weight in gold.
Just as musically pungent is the D Minor Concerto of C.P.E. Bach (1748), which I first heard with Gustav Leonhardt. Written in the stile brise or broken style, the opening movement has huge, swooping leaps, an expressiveness we likewise hear in Mozart’s opening of the Haffner Symphony. At a time when few pianists ventured into Bach’s music, Balsam recorded several solo keyboard works for the Musical Heritage Society. Always applying the dictum of “moderation in tempos,” Balsam’s Bach, like his Mozart, is cleanly articulate. He created his own cadenza for the K. 238 as well as some others. Full- toned but always relaxed, Balsam’s Mozart presses forward without ever sacrificing the arched, singing line. This preoccupation with beauty of tone in Mozart playing hearkens back to the Leschetizky school of keyboard pedagogy, which Balsam inherited through Schnabel. This is a consistently gratifying set, eminently musical in all respects.