Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Classics: In the piano concertos, we hear Beethoven in hard-fought sort-of-harmony with the universe


No less than Van Cliburn introduces the piano-playing Serkins, Rudolf (1903-1991) and Peter (born 1947), playing Schubert's four-hand Military March in G, D. 733, No. 2, on the occasion of Serkin père's 85th birthday in 1988, from a 1988 concert featuring 26 pianists, issued by VAI.

"Rudolf Serkin was once asked, jokingly of course, if Beethoven had composed the Choral Fantasy for Marlboro. The piece has everything Marlboro could have wanted for its final concert: an orchestra in which everyone could play; solos within the orchestra; ensemble playing among various instruments; piano solo; and a chorus for everyone else in the Marlboro community. Rudolf Serkin responded, with his characteristic smile, 'No, Beethoven didn't compose it for Marlboro.... But he approves.'"

by Ken

What Christopher Serkin, a distinguished law professor, discreetly doesn't mention here -- though his last name is certainly suggestive -- is that Rudolf Serkin, a co-founder of the Marlboro Music Festival who was for decades its presiding artistic spirit -- was his grandfather, and Peter Serkin, whom he later mentions conducts the Choral Fantasy performance included in this Marlboro anniversary issue, is his uncle. (Peter Serkin, while a dramatically different sort of musician from his father, established himself at an early age as one of the leading pianists of his generation. It's kind of weird, for me at least, to think that young Peter is now in his 60s.)

Not many serious music people take the Choral Fantasy seriously, and for a long time I didn't get either. At some point the pieces fell into place, and that was thanks mostly to Rudolf Serkin's recordings. However, I was unaccountably unaware of something Christopher Serkin points out in his comment: "For almost 40 years, the Choral Fantasy was the last piece in the last [Marlboro Festival] concert of the summer." He goes on:
Especially in recent years when Marlboro has been exclusively a chamber music festival, the Choral Fantasy was the one time during the summer when all of the chamber musicians would come together into an orchestra, and the results were invariably magical. In any given year, the orchestra would include a mixture of some of the great luminaries of the musical world playing alongside brilliant younger musicians -- soloists and chamber musicians briefly forming an orchestra. For that one moment, it could be the greatest orchestra in the world. . . .

Despite all of the remarkable Choral Fantasy performances over the years, this CD marks the first time that a Marlboro recording of the piece has been released. Whatever one's view of the work itself, it represents Marlboro to many of us who have spent summers there.

[Note: You know where Amazon asks, at the end of each "customer review," "Was this review helpful to you?" When I looked, "27 out of 28 people found the following review helpful." I made it 28 out of 29. I'm wondering what the deal is with the person who didn't find this review helpful.]

We're going to talk more about the piece later. For now, let's just plunge into Serkin's first recording, made in 1962 as the second-side LP filler for his new recording of the Beethoven Third Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

BEETHOVEN: Fantasy in C for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80
The most obvious observation to be made is that the Choral Fantasy of 1808 (thus at roughly the time of the Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral is a dry run for the monumental finale of the Ninth Symphony, which culminates in a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy including four vocal soloists and chorus, composed more than a decade later. As in the finale of the Ninth, Beethoven takes us through a winding, surprise-filled landscape before we reach the unexpected choral destination. Wikipedia has German and English texts in a pleasantly sympathetic article on the Choral Fantasy, at Here's Decca's translation:

Enticingly fair and lovely sound
the harmonies of our life,
and from a sense of beauty arise
glowers that bloom forever.

Peace and joy flow hand in hand
like the changing play of the waves;
what was crowded together in chaos and hostility
now shapes itself into exalted feeling.

When music's enchantment reigns
and poetry's consecration speaks,
wondrous things take shape;
night and storm change to light.

Outer peace, inner bliss
are the rulers of the happy man.
But the spring sun of the arts
causes light to flow from both.

Great things that have penetrated the heart
blossom anew and beautifully on high,
and the spirit that has soared up
is always echoed by a chorus of spirits.

Take them, then, you noble souls,
gladly, these gifts of noble art.
When love and strength are wedded together
mankind is rewarded with divine grace.

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Westminster Choir, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded May 1, 1962


It may be with his five piano concertos that Beethoven's link to Mozart feels most direct. They were written more than anything for the composers' own use, as exceedingly public demonstrations of what they could do. The concerto we know as Beethoven's Second could be one that Mozart never lived to write.

(Let's get the numbering straight: No, I'm not concerned about the earlier concerto or two Beethoven wrote. The "canon" is appropriately five concertos. But the first two have come down to us numbered wrong. The one we know as No. 2, which could pass for a concerto Mozart never lived to write, was composed first, and then "No. 1," the mighty C major Concerto, which recalls Mozart's grandest concerto, No. 25, also in C major, and expands it yet another step.)

The C major Concerto is thought to have been written in 1798 and revised in 1800, whereupon Beethoven seems to have set to work almost immediately on a companion piece in C minor, which also has an illustrious antecedent in Mozart's No. 24. We've already heard the finale of Beethoven's C minor Concerto. Let's listen now to the whole thing, in what I'm calling an "all-Rubinstein performance," assembled from his first three recordings of the piece. (I didn't consider using the fourth, from his third and final Beethoven concerto cycle, from 1975, with his young keyboard colleague Daniel Barenboim conducting, which I actually quite like, for all the evidence of Rubinstein's advancing age. But I don't have it on CD, which I guess says something about just how much I like it, at least relative to the earlier versions.)

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

i. Allegro con brio

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Symphony of the Air, Josef Krips, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded April 1956
ii. Largo

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 5-6, 1965
iii. Rondo: Allegro

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded live, Oct. 29, 1944

You don't have to take my word -- listen for yourself. It seemed obvious to go with hour honorees Rubinstein and Serkin (and then, which of their recordings?), so I just picked one of each.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491:
i. Allegro

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Josef Krips, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 20, 1958

Rudolf Serkin, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded October 1985

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15:
i. Allegro con brio

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 20, 1967

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Telarc, recorded Oct. 5, 1983

Here, then, is an "all-star" performance of the Third Concerto.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

i. Allegro con brio

Murray Perahia, piano; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded c1985
ii. Largo

Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Sanderling, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 28-30, 1962
iii. Rondo: Allegro

Rudolf Firkusny, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Walter Süsskind, cond. EMI, recorded c1958

We've already talked about the remarkable opening of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, in last night's preview, so why don't we just go right into it? Note that the scale of the concluding Rondo has grown conspicuously over its predecessor, but between these mammoth outer movements, Beethoven chose to go short with the slow movement, which is nevertheless a piece of considerable emotional weight. Our "all-Schnabel performance" consists of one movement from each of Since Artur Schnabel's three recordings (about which more in a moment).

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

i. Allegro moderato

Artur Schnabel, piano; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent, cond. HMV/EMI, recorded Feb. 16, 1933
ii. Andante con moto

Artur Schnabel, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1942
iii. Rondo: Vivace

Artur Schnabel, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Issay Dobrowen, cond. HMV/EMI, recorded June 5-7, 1946

Schnabel's 1932-35 Beethoven concerto cycle remains a recording landmark, not just historically but musically, and again -- as with the Pearl transfers of the equally legendary Beethoven sonata recordings -- my piano maven Leo tipped me off to one transfer from the 78s that's so far superior to any other he's heard as to make it an all-or-nothing proposition. This one, however, is readily available: It's Naxos's, done by Mark Obert-Thorn.

In 1946-47 EMI had the excellent idea of rerecording Schnabel in the Beethoven concertos, taking advantage of all the improvements in recording technology, and two concertos were recorded each year. (In 1942, as we know, Schnabel had rerecorded No. 4 with the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock. They also recorded No. 5, the Emperor. Schnabel never did rerecord No. 1.)

Even though Schnabel was still Schnabel -- and it should be said that, while he put up with it, he hated the recording process -- and two very good conductors, Issay Dobrowen and Alceo Galliera, were engaged (though Galliera, who was brought in for the 1947 Emperor, was only 37, and possibly more influenceable if anyone had wished to influence him), not many music lovers have ever been wildly enthusiastic about the remakes, which objectively seem like Schnabel performances but just don't seem to have the inner life of the real thing. (This sounds horribly pat coming so soon after my vicious attack on Walter Legge for systematically draining outstanding musicians' recorded performances of the connective tissue that made their real performances sound so different, but the symptoms do seem to fit. Do I have to tell you who produced those 1946-47 recordings?

With that, let's have one final go at the Fourth Concerto:

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

i. Allegro moderato

Leon Fleisher, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Epic/CBS/Sony, recorded Jan. 10, 1959
ii. Andante con moto

Wilhelm Kempff, piano; Berlin Philharmonic, Ferdinand Leitner, cond. DG, recorded July 1961
iii. Rondo: Vivace

Emil Gilels, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig, cond. EMI, recorded Apr. 26-May 1, 1957


After the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven did return to the piano concerto once more, to produce the grandest and most majestic of the series, the Emperor. It's possible that this is as far as he could have taken the concerto form, but we'll never know, because although his voluminous musical sketchbooks do contain sketches for a sixth concerto, it was never written, and apparently for the simplest of reasons: The composer's hearing had deteriorated to the point where public performance with an orchestra was no longer a realistic possibility.

His most remarkable music was yet to be written, and in a quantity that seems astonishing under the circumstances. But it was increasingly music that he heard only in his head, and not surprisingly his gaze turned increasingly inward. He also had increasingly less need of a form that enabled him to express harmony, however hard-fought, with the universe.


Though its opus number is higher, the Choral Fantasy was written shortly before the Emperor, and while it can seem like a wild hodgepodge, to its admirers its wildness is one of its glories.

I'm not going to attempt a detailed analysis. Wikipedia's article, as I noted earlier, does a surprisingly effective job of it. I'm just going to suggest a way of listening to it, focusing on the hysterically overwrought piano solo that occupies roughly the first four minutes.

I think it's important to recognize that it is overwrought. I've just been listening to Vladimir Ashkenazy's self-conducted recording, which rounds out the Beethoven concerto cycle from which we heard the first movement of the Fourth Concerto last night. Ashkenazy plays the music with the utmost beauty; I'm quite sure I've never heard it played with this roundness and finish of tone. He makes it all sound quite logical, quite reasonable, and really rather unintersting, even pointless. Not surprisingly, his performance really has nowhere to go from there.

I don't want to suggest anything quite as extreme as "parody," but there is definitely the sense of a grand orator, a rhetorician trying desperately to express matters too grand and important to be readily within reach, at least at this particular moment, and coming off as maybe slightly hysterical. I'm not sure I would go so far as to suggest that it's even "humorous," but surely there is something going on in the innards of this solo, which doesn't seem able to figure out where it's trying to get let alone how to get there. The word "ironic" comes to mind, or maybe better "laconic."

And here we're in terrain where Rudolf Serkin ruled. I know I'm risking accusations of gross ethnic stereotyping, but I don't think of Germans as being an especially humorous people. Oh sure, there are funny Germans, but by and large it doesn't seem to be a trait that comes quite naturally. But irony, laconic-ness (laconicity?), a sense of the wry -- this is something that is far from uncommon among cultured Germans, and this I sense Serkin had a large supply of. Attitudinally, in other words, I think he was born to champion the Choral Fantasy.

BEETHOVEN: Fantasy in C for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Nan Nall (s), Beverly Morgan (ms), Shirley Close (ms), Gene Tucker (t), Sanford Sylvan (b), David Evitts (b), Marlboro Festival Chorus and Orchestra, Peter Serkin, cond. Sony, recorded live, Aug. 9, 1981

When the orchestra finally makes its relatively inconspicuous entrance, there's a sort of sense that it's extending a hand, trying to guide the piano gently back from the precipice. And sure enough, with a little working out the piano is able to get it together enough to announce, now with some confidence, the simple, charming little ditty that will eventually provide the grand vocal finale in the way that the dittylike "Ode to Joy" tune later would in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Whereupon the orchestra takes up the tune for a set of quite charming variations, at first with minimal contribution from the piano, which eventually rallies to make its own contribution.

As I mentioned last night, there is now a fourth commercially issued Serkin recording of the Choral Fantasy, with Orfeo's release of the Beethoven concerto cycle he did in 1977 with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, which included the Choral Fantasy. Now that I know it exists, I'll be watching for a copy that falls within my "cheapskate" price range, but for the moment you're spared.

We do have one last recording, though, and this one has the best singers and chorus.

BEETHOVEN: Fantasy in C for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Faye Robinson (s), Mary Burgess (s), Lili Chookasian (c), Kenneth Riegel (t), David Gordon (b), Julien Robbins (bs); Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Telarc, recorded Oct. 2 and 4, 1982


Friday: Beethoven and the "heart of the piano concerto"
Rondo from Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Arthur Rubinstein, with the Symphony of the Air under Josef Krips); also by Krystian Zimerman (video, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein) and by Evgeny Kissin (with the London Symphony under Sir Colin Davis). Plus Rubinstein "Beethoven bonus": Moonlight Sonata.

Saturday: Down in the basement with Beethoven
1st movement of Concerto No. 4, played by Artur Schnabel, with the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock (1942); also by Claudio Arrau (video, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti), by Arthur Rubinstein (with the Symphony of the Air under Krips), and by Vladimir Ashkenazy (also conducting the Cleveland Orchestra). Plus Schnabel "Beethoven bonuses": Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90; Bagatelle, Für Elise.


The current list is here.

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At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks Keni, my homework and background surfing music for a busy week.


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