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february/march 2003


The Beethoven Five piano Concerti: A comparison for the Ages
Corno de Basetto


The five Beethoven piano concerti are a major landmark of the classical repertory. They form a nexus between the classical and early romantic literature, reflecting the change in Beethoven's style from his early through middle period. Because of the importance of the Beethoven 5, any new recording of the complete set is eagerly awaited and invariably compared to the recognized standards of the recorded literature. So when the recently released GM recording (GM5002CD) of the Fifth with the eminent American pianist Russell Sherman and The Monadnock Festival Orchestra conducted by James Bolle became available, comparison with my reference set—the legendary Leon Fleisher/George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra set (Sony) from 1959 (#4) and 1961 (Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 5)—followed.

Thirty or so years ago I received the Fleisher/Szell set as a gift from my good friend, the estimable Max Dudious. Truth be told though, it was Max's father, Irv, who touted me on the excellence of George Szell and the magnificence of his creation, The Cleveland Orchestra. Irv was the rare father who was able to establish a dialogue with that paragon of the implacable, the sixteen year old adolescent male.

"The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell seems to me to be the best band in the U.S, rivaling the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics as well as the Concertgebouw." Challenging words from a resident of B'more—not even a "homer" from Shaker Heights. Baltimore then was visited 10 times yearly by "The Philadelphians" with Eugene Ormandy. This was near blasphemy.

Of course Irv was correct and not really the heretic I fancied him to be.

I first saw The Cleveland under Szell in NYC in 1957. The Smetana Overture to The Bartered Bride was performed with such polish, precision and unbounded joy that I was swept up by this music making. Remarkably, during the ensuing 45 years I have always found performances by "The Cleveland" to be at this level, whether in Severance Hall, New York, or as it was this February in the new Verizon Hall in Philadelphia.

Max gave me the Fleisher/Szell set in the early 1970s. It was recognized then as now as one of the reference interpretations of the 5. Leon Fleisher was inside these works. He expressed the joy, the sadness, and the pervasive energy found in the Beethoven 5.

George Szell died in 1971. His accomplishment in leading The Cleveland Orchestra to a level second to none was internationally acknowledged. His orchestral contribution to the Beethoven Concerti is faultless, refined, vital, and chamber-like in phrasing and detail. The playing is immaculate.

Exuberance is the defining quality of Beethoven's music. The five piano concerti are no exception. They carry in every movement this stamp of Beethoven's forceful personality. Of course there is also abundant contemplation of peace and sorrow throughout these works. There is no small amount of poetry for the artist who looks for it.

Russell Sherman finds the poetic throughout the 5 concerti. He phrases the slow movement of #2 and #3 eloquently and is expansive in his playing of the second theme of the first movement of the magnificent 4th concerto. His phrasing of the 5th concerto's slow movement is hauntingly beautiful, creating the tension filled introduction to the rambunctious finale of the 5th. And the exuberance of Beethoven is ever present

The orchestral accompaniment provided by The Monadnock Festival Orchestra under James Bolle is quite splendid. The wind and brass soloists are first rate and are allowed to express themselves as soloists by conductor Bolle. The strings play with great refinement and impeccable tone.

Each of the 5 concerti is performed as a joint statement by soloist Sherman and conductor Bolle. And of course there is marvelous spontaneity ever present because these are live performances. These recordings were made at the Peterborough Town House, Peterborough, N.H. September 1 and 3, 2000. Judith Sherman was the producer and engineer. The reproduction she provides for these performances captures both the piano and orchestra in a natural well defined soundstage. The dynamics of the Beethoven are all there. The recording is beautifully rendered.

George Szell has been described as a besserwisser; one who believes he knows everything better (than anyone else). Musically, he did. His tempi and phrasing of the five Beethoven concerti are models of vitality and consistency. There is an inexorable drive to Szell's Beethoven. Yet, the result is light to the touch, mercurial, never ponderous.

Szell does not linger to highlight the poetic phrase. The music speaks for itself. It speaks for Beethoven.

Leon Fleisher was 33 years old in 1961, George Szell, 63. The Beethoven concerti represent Szell's vision. He created in The Cleveland a wunderkind orchestra which fulfilled his ideals in performing the orchestral repertory like a group of chamber players with an elegance of style and a transparency of tone which allowed the inner details of the music to be heard. Leon Fleisher's collaboration with Szell in the Beethoven 5 is chamber music like. The Sony recording of the Beethoven 5 Concerti is a prime example of George Szell's art. It is Beethoven without editorial comment. It is elegant and always cohesive. The recording made in Cleveland's Severance Hall by engineers Harold Chapman and Bud Graham has a surprisingly deep and well defined soundstage, considering it was produced 20 years B.D. (Before Digital). There is no stridency; just very smooth, very enjoyable sound.

Do the Szell/Fleisher performances lack poetry and variety? Perhaps, when compared today to such a recording as the Sherman/Bolle/Monadnock effort.

Forty years separate these two recordings. The Szell/Fleisher/Cleveland is a classic. It has stood the test of time, and has remained vibrant and unanimous of purpose. 

Nevertheless, the Sherman/Bolle/Monadnock recording has much to recommend itself. It is fresh, and excels in spontaneity and poetic vision, and has much to say. I believe that, together with the Szell, it will become a reference for those Beethoven 5's to come.