Rudolf Serkin: The Beethoven Piano Concertos, Choral Fantasy – Rafael Kubelik – Orfeo

by | Mar 9, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: The Piano Concertos; Choral Fantasy – Rudolf Serkin, piano/ Bavarian Radio Symphony and Choir/ Rafael Kubelik – Orfeo C220043(3 CDs) (10/3/12) 65:54; 71:04; 57:35 [Distr. by Naxos] *****: 

Originally issued in 2005, this set commemorates the sessions May-October 1977, when Austrian piano virtuoso Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) appeared in Munich, Germany to perform the cycle of Beethoven concertos with Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996). Serkin always communicates an athletic, muscular vigor in his interpretations, at least up to the late 1980s, when a discernible fatigue made itself felt. Those who follow Serkin’s several traversals of the Beethoven concertos on records likely favor his work with Leonard Bernstein, in which their Choral Fantasy, too, possesses a distinctive thrust and sense of purpose that makes for explosive listening. 

The martial impetus for the C Major Concerto (rec. 5 October 1977), its opening Allegro con brio, sets the tone for a performance of authoritative grandeur, with Serkin’s entry hardly an understatement, but a lyrical articulation within his essentially percussive means. Eschewing the sugar in his piano tone, Serkin always tended to a virile purposefulness. Kubelik elicits glowing responsive from his fine ensemble, especially in the articulation of the woodwinds, and the pomp in brass and tympani. Recall that prior to his First Symphony, this concerto demanded the most development in Beethoven’s orchestral output. The compressed development section, with its eerie, pp descending scales demonstrates Serkin’s capacity to contribute transparent tone colors when required. The extended cadenza (Beethoven composed three for the first movement) provides Serkin a bravura vehicle for both dexterity, stamina, and poetry.

The Largo in A-flat Major, plays like an extended, intimate colloquy, even a quasi-chorale, between Serkin and the Munich woodwinds and strings. Even the tiny cadenza reveals the sturdiness in Serkin’s legendary trill. The last movement, a seven-section palindrome in rondo structure, bristles with extroverted energy. Serkin introduces each theme, repeats it forte, with the tutti’s determined pursuit, particularly Kubelik’s often manic strings. Consistently in C Major, the delight comes in the form of tiny adjustments in the statement, with rubato and well-considered accents, especially in staccato. The “rhumba” episode communicates frothy humor within a cultivated context. Listen to the tympanic fury announcing Serkin’s improvisatory-sounding cadenza. Serkin seems to disappear before the coda, slowing down to allow the oboes to bid a tearful farewell before he explosive rush to final judgment.

The B-flat Concerto, in actuality Beethoven’s first “authorized” piano concerto for publication, enjoys an aerial Allegro con brio with only a hint of the muscular menace Beethoven could impart. The athletic contribution from the Munich orchestra surpasses what Ormandy brought in Philadelphia to this breezy work in essentially Mozart style. Serkin allots his part a delicacy, even a music-box sonority, we might not ordinarily associate with his pungent style. The color elements, the digressions in the minor mode and a theme in D-flat Major, emerge with a natural fluency that belies Beethoven’s pushing of the orthodox, Classical envelope. The cadenza, a staid fugue in essence, breaks off to allow the lyrical secondary theme some dramatic pose before some improvisation, and builds a series of rising scales and passing dissonances that suddenly pause, only to resume their impetus to catapult to the coda.

The E-flat Major Adagio seems intended for lyrical improvisation, especially given Beethoven’s habit of not having written his part down for premiere performances. The transparent delicacy of Serkin’s legato with the Munich winds achieves the intimacy of chamber music. The emotional poise of collaboration merits the price of admission. The unharmonized melody in the keyboard’s late pages may well have struck Beethoven’s audience with the same sense of originality it maintains with us. The last movement, an infectious Rondo in 6/8, presents something like his work in ecossaises, Scottish music. The music becomes even more audacious, playing with “gypsy” effects, while the piano seems to improvise between the four appearances of the main theme. The late move to unexpected G Major nods in good humor to Haydn, who likewise loves false recapitulations. The orchestra discovers the “error” in time to bring the concerto to a sound conclusion. 

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (1803) and Fourth Piano Concerto (1808), recorded 4 November 1977, both initiate and solidify his “second period of development,” having shed the immediate models in Haydn and Mozart for a concise, dramatic style that no less incorporates intense moments of lyrical expression. The C Minor Concerto, despite its debts to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, embodies Beethoven’s often dark drama on its own terms. Serkin and Kubelik engage the pungent turmoil and lilting effusions of the opening Allegro con brio with much of the same force Serkin and Leonard Bernstein achieved with the New York Philharmonic for CBS. Astonishing in both its velocity and its confrontational audacity, Serkin’s fiery approach moves forward with a directness that Kubelik matches for power and expressive nuance. Not until the large cadenza does Serkin manage a thoughtful, though relentless intensity that finally settles to those cadences that permit the long trill and the tympanic beats that define the sweeping, extended coda. Beethoven does follow Mozart most directly for the Rondo: Allegro last movement, both in form and the tempo change to 6/8 for the coda. Kubelik contributes his own dynamism into the steely Serkin mix, that includes a “learned” fugato section and, unlike Mozart’s sad variations, a delightfully sunny presto in C Major.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

The wonderful Largo in E Major projects the atmosphere of a hymn embedded within a spun-out nocturne, especially when Serkin’s liquid arpeggios combine with bassoon and flute. Serkin’s chosen silences prove as dramatically urgent as his lyric musings, sustaining the mood of chamber music intimacy. Between torrents of bravura and lyrical urgency, Serkin proves his consummate mastery in the Beethoven style.

To my thinking, the G Major Concerto bears much of the economical imprint of the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata Sonata, in terms of a four-note rhythmic kernel and the balance of motor and lyrical elements. The long tutti in the opening Allegro moderato allows Kubelik to establish a long, generous melodic line, nicely balanced in strings and woodwinds, pregnant with considered pauses and nuances in timbre. “The unity condensation,” as Glenn Gould put it, dominates the shared conception by Serkin and Kubelik, and the result proves poetically captivating. The development section’s mystery of the keyboard’s solo statement of the motto, joined by subdued strings and winds, soon evolves into a well-wrought rhapsody, wherein Serkin’s keyboard becomes an Aeolian harp, whose silken ladder segues into the recapitulation.

The eternal magic of the second movement Andante con moto in E Minor ever begs the question of the proper characterization to capture the nature of its dialogue, its 72 measures having elicited the myth of Orpheus and his subduing the Furies. One commentator offers the notion of Serkin’s “consoling sweetness” in the face of grim emotional onslaughts from the orchestra. The last movement Rondo: vivace seems to ooze out from the gloom, a playful but martial idea that soon gains assertive power. Kubelik’s motor contribution, in the sudden thrusts of energy, keeps us on emotional alert, so even the regularities of the rondo form attain a renewed vitality. 

Serkin and Kubelik set down the Emperor Concerto and Choral Fantasia 30 October 1977, a pair of torrential interpretations. The Emperor’s opening movement, Allegro, emerges and evolves as one extended line, driven with both technical flair and dramatic poetry. Each of Kubelik’s final cadences seems to land on an explosion, to which Serkin often responds in soft tones, but rife with kinetic acceleration. One critic at the time spoke of Serkin’s “lyrical vulnerability,” as though the intense hours of consummate, merciless practice and stern discipline had finally transcended mere mechanics.

Perhaps the wonderful set of theme and variations of the second movement Adagio un poco mosso best speaks to the point of tenderness born of hardest, Spartan aesthetics. That movement, whose note falls a semitone to introduce the ebullient Rondo – Allegro ma non troppo, has set the tone from mystical beauty to muscular jubilation in the sureness of one’s means, a towering performance.

As for the Choral Fantasia, with its spontaneous mix of solo improvisation, perky variations on Beethoven’s 1795 lied Gegenliebe (“Mutual love”), and keyboard concerto, this came as the “overwhelming surprise” to the Bavarian audience, with its renewed sense of popular novelty, a combination of heroic grandeur and crowd-pleasing optimism. We, too, may now share these precious moments, when Rudolf Serkin’s authority in the music of Beethoven could not be denied.

—Gary Lemco