Rudolf Serkin plays BEETHOVEN, Vol. I = Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 – Rudolf Serkin, piano/ Orchestra “Alessandro Scarlatti” di Napoli della RAI/Franco Caracciolo/ Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI/Ferruccio Scaglia (Op. 58)
IDI IDIS 6595 70:13 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) traversed the Beethoven piano concertos many times, finally setting down an integral commercial set in the 1980s with one conductor, Seiji Ozawa. A traversal exists on the Orfeo label with Rafael Kubelik. Serkin also inscribed individual concertos with Toscanini, Walter, Ormandy, Ansermet, and Bernstein. Now, Serkin’s live traversal of the Beethoven concerto oeuvre from late 1950s Italy comes forth, in relatively boxy and often compressed sound, again with various practitioners from RAI’s stable of house conductors and orchestras.
The archetypal Serkin aggression might seem subdued in the C Major Concerto from Naples June 1958, at least until the first movement cadenza. Then, the fiery trill and the streamlined runs cascade into demonic filigree at every turn, the percussive aspects of Serkin’s style unbound. The resources of the Naples ensemble appear several times intimidated by Serkin’s sonority, and generally the sonic fidelity of the inscription remains a mite distant. Franco Caracciolo (1920-1999) proves adept enough as a provider of orchestral colors, but the focus is all on Serkin. The Largo movement carries perhaps the most depth in this performance, presaging as it does Beethoven’s later synthesis of lyricism and dark drama. The last movement Rondo shoots real sparks, a tour de force played at a quite brisk Allegro scherzando. The linear motion proves uncompromising, even at the risk of smearing the orchestral definition and some pretty colors from Beethoven’s woodwinds. Still, as a potent document of Serkin’s explosive musicianship, the electric effect of the collaboration cannot be denied.
The most beautiful of the Beethoven concertos, the G Major from Rome 1958, with Ferruccio Scaglia, resembles in several respects the singing interpretation Serkin offered up for CBS (ML 5038) with Eugene Ormandy around the same period. There persists Serkin’s habit–likely a Toscanini legacy–of clipping phrase endings in order to accelerate the melodic line, but the actual shaping of the four-beat contours with variations proves eminently thoughtful and dramatically intense. With his surgeon’s ear, Serkin remains attentive to the harmonic motion in Beethoven, adjusting for the modulations with fervent anticipation and release. Given his capacity for percussive power, Serkin always astonishes with the intimate softness of his pianissimos. The first movement cadenza justifies the “Aeolian harp” epithet most consistently applied to this lyrical concerto, a kind of Apollinian flip-side of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Andante has the ingredients of the “Furies tamed by Orpheus” formula, though we experience at least two pitch dropouts in its brief course. The close miking lets us hear Serkin’s thumping of the pedals, then his gradual relinquishing of power to set up the quiet E Minor transition to the C Major Finale, a combination of florid romance and quicksilver animation. Diaphanous runs from Serkin and then thunderous chords to the brief evanescent cadenza, culminating in a mighty trill and the shimmering peroration of sweep and elegant, resolute beauty. The bravos from the Naples crowd bespeak an eminently successful concert.
— Gary Lemco