Clara Haskil, piano = MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, K. 459; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (two performances); SCHUMANN: Bunte Blaetter, Op. 99: 3 Pieces; Albumblatter; Abegg Variations, Op. 1; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 – Clara Haskil, piano/RIAS Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay/Dean Dixon (Beethoven)

Audite 23.421 (2 CDs) 71:57; 61:42 mono [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Recordings from the studio and the concert hall 1953-1954 by the inimitable Clara Haskil (1895-1960) feature the great Romanian virtuoso in her favorite repertory of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann.  Accompanying Haskil in all but the live performance (24 November 1954) of the Beethoven Concerto is Hungarian maestro Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963), always a superb collaborator with ideas of his own. Lotte Lenya once spoke of “sprechgesang,” the cross of speech and singing in acting–according to the Brecht method–that dominated her aesthetic. So, too, Haskil’s ability to make a singing tone of the keyboard embodied her especial gift, her searching yet spontaneous musicianship, which few have equaled or surpassed. Truth and Poetry–Goethe’s artistic credo–was no less Haskil’s, and we rush to these unearthed treasures with heady anticipation.

We open with Mozart’s F Major Concerto, K. 459, whose hunting-party ethos carries happy sounds throughout. Fricsay, typically, keeps the woodwind openwork perpetually present; yet, his uncanny subito allows Haskil free reign to comment upon or dominate all instrumental developments. Clarity of line blends with affectionate musing in phrasal units at every turn; we reach the first movement cadenza before we quite aware of how much lyrical colloquy has passed us. Haskil’s pearly, music-box figurations and facile runs and trills suave segue into the coda, whose strings, winds, and horn take the hunt to a blithe conclusion.  Flute and bassoon add their distinctive colors to Haskil’s keyboard finesse in the Allegretto, a piano-wind serenade of the highest, vocal order whose tempo never drags. Delicacy and impish grace mark the final Allegro assai, the high winds and bassoon particularly witty, even irreverent. The pulsation from the bass fiddles proves quite thick, despite the briskly intense pace of Fricsay’s chosen tempo. How similar Haskil and Robert Casadesus are in their quicksilver approach to Mozart!  Rocket figures, polyphony, runs, breezy cascades–all fly by in a torrent of playful bravura, always beguiling, always concealing the severe craft behind the façade of “mere” ingenuity.

We go to the three Schumann Bunte Blaetter, just for contrast, the Romantic’s character-pieces of introspection and initiated passions. The choppy metrics of the Sehr rasch section hint at internal struggles of the spirit; yet, a sublime, steady pulse dominates. The Frisch becomes a kind of martial-legend, in the manner of one of the Waldszenen. We inhale the piece deeply, but it ends in less than a minute. Five plus minutes are allotted the Albumblaetter, inward and rife with nostalgia for the dream of life. The “Schnell” entry sounds like a fevered reverie; the last three each calls for a degree of “langsam,” slowness, but tempered by layers of affect. “Sehr langsam” lies a hair’s breadth away, temperamentally, from dark Brahms, Berg and Webern. Haskil took great pains over the 1830 Abegg Variations of Schumann, his opus one. She plays it as a salon etude in contrasted chiaroscuro, the line brittle, evanescent, and elastic or pounding and aggressive, Euebius and Florestan. Its Cantabile section assumes a florid, operatic bombast, all rhetoric; then a syncopated treatment of the main theme leads us to stellar, Chopinesque Fantasia (Vivace) of clean, liquid proportions, pompous, scintillating, confident.

Two inscriptions of the volatile Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 provide us an opportunity to hear Haskil on two consecutive days, the first the studio performance from the Jesus-Christus Kirche (11 January 1954), the “live” performance having been given at the Europa-Palast, Berlin (10 January 1954), with slightly  diminished sonics. Without the audience on which to draw fear and energy, Haskil plays in the studio with a firm, staid resolve, the sonic qualities eminently present in the woodwinds and the keyboard runs. A powerful tension resides in the atmosphere, despite the empty hall. With the audience, a dynamic electricity emanates in all parts. The essential, sweeping sturm und drang elements that Fricsay brought to the fore in an otherwise “rococo” period of Mozart interpretation still quite stun and captivate us. Haskil’s keyboard manages to grumble, to heave with surging emotions. Haskil’s own cadenza has the two hands in contrary motion, runs and trills juxtaposed, progressingto a furor of chromatic intervals that finally cadence, so Fricsay’s fierce entry can catapult us to the murky coda.

In each case, the Romance movement rings with pearly beauty, a poised resonance whose every note and turn emanates from an aristocrat of the keyboard. The tumultuous middle section might burst into flames until bassoon and strings help reestablish something like the idyllic grace of the opening.  Deliberate, articulated enunciation of the theme opens the emotionally frenetic Allegro assai, hardly a traditional rondo, but rather a lyric dramatic excursion into D Minor and D Major. Haskil’s cadenza, once more, enjoys a brief, divine frenzy. The live version is a hair brisker, yet the two performances stand a mere five seconds apart in playing time, in spite of their idiosyncratic momentum–a phenomenon of motor consistency attributed to Mozart himself as a performer of his own works!

For the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, Haskil joins the Afro-American conductor Dean Dixon (1915-1976), whose musical career flourished in Europe despite a rough start in America after Juilliard. The collaboration takes place at the Hochschule fur Musik, Berlin, whose warm acoustic compensates for a wee distance in the miking. Dixon’s opening tutti has a marvelous breadth, much in the Scherchen or Schuricht mode, a sweet surface rife with the inner conflicts of the C Minor Symphony. Mellifluous and poised, the performance enjoys the taut polish and urbanity we love in Haskil, a thorough identification with this Aeolian Harp of piano concertos. The drive to the first movement recapitulation alone is worth the price of admission! A somber, studied Andante con moto sees the light at the end of the tunnel, the opening of the Rondo: vivace bristling with serene, nuanced execution. Dixon has the bass fiddles churning away, the upper strings buzzing and whirling in fine syncopation to Haskil’s pyrotechnics. Ardent, colorful, this collaboration marks another important, recorded milestone in the expansive Haskil discography that accumulates around a selective, seminal body of works.

–Gary Lemco