Beethoven Piano Concerto 4 and Mozart review!

The Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4/ Mozart Concerto 25 with Leon Fleisher and George Szell is definitively reviewed by Thomas Dawkins in this HDTT tape transfer.

The merits of Leon Fleisher’s recording of the Beethoven fourth piano concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are not up for debate in this article.  It is a classic recording from January of 1959 and has been in the catalog pretty much ever since, with many reissues on both vinyl and CD.  The latest of these was a five-disc set released by Sony in 2014.  Our editor here brought a new remastering of this recording to my attention this week, done by the Canadian company High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT). This company’s logo states “providing great music to audiophiles for over 16 years” and they have a sizeable catalog of classical and jazz recordings, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s.

Leon Fleisher was a driving force in piano until he began to suffer from focal dystonia in his right hand in 1964.  He spent many years playing left-handed repertoire and conducting until in the mid-1990s he received a series of botox injections in his right hand and found that he was able to use it again, perhaps not as well as he had before his condition began, but he nevertheless spent the next several years playing and recording, and while his clarity was somewhat diminished it was still a joy to hear him play again with both hands.

George Szell likewise was a giant of classical music and was largely responsible for revitalizing the Cleveland Orchestra after World War II.  He was an exacting conductor who demanded a lot of his musicians but also received a great deal in return.  He is more precise and less heart-on-sleeve than Leonard Bernstein or Georg Solti, but his recordings are highly regarded, especially his Beethoven symphonies.

The performance is sterling in its clarity and interpretation, the orchestral playing is perfectly together, and the soloist and conductor are thinking together, which is not to be taken for granted.  I favor a somewhat more Romantic heart-on-sleeve approach to Beethoven but this is a more than valid and extremely enjoyable version of one of my favorite piano concerti. 

Beethoven goes outside the usual form and has the piano start the first movement alone with a five-bar phrase, upon which the orchestra enters for its usual lengthy opening statement in entirely the wrong key of B Major, though it only takes eight bars to reestablish G Major as “home” again.  The second movement is also unlike anything else in the repertoire, a back-and-forth between the strings, very forcefully, and the piano, quietly. 

It has been suggested that this may represent the story of Orpheus imploring the Furies to give him back Euridice, though there is no evidence that supports or opposes this being Beethoven’s idea.  The Rondo is more traditional in form, with rare major-key exuberance from Beethoven that doesn’t feel forced, and a race-to-the-finish finale.  All of this is executed with all of the skill and panache that you would expect from titans of the mid-20th century American classical music scene.

The Mozart C Major is not one of my favorite piano concerti, though there is certainly nothing wrong with it.  I just happen to prefer the two that precede it.  Fleisher’s Steinway sparkles considerably here though, the pages of scales and passagework posing no audible challenge whatsoever.  The orchestra plays this as a big 1959 Mozart with full sound, something that may not be quite historically accurate according to today’s scholarship, but it packs a nice punch without going over the top.

Onto the recording itself, while HDTT will send you a CD, the preferred medium seems to be a digital delivery.  After I had downloaded the files for the new remastering and had a listen, I was curious to make a comparison to the latest Sony remastering (done in 2006) because to me the sound was very clean but lacked depth.  Impressively, there was practically no hiss to be heard even with headphones but the dynamic range and upper harmonics also felt diminished.  So I also downloaded the Sony remastering and what I discovered was an older stereo recording with some tape hiss but also a greater and more vibrant dynamic range and depth.

 In this earlier remastering, I can also “hear the hall” and the ambiance of the room; the HDTT version is more sterile in this respect.  For my preferences, I can only liken the “high definition” transfer to a painting that has been over-cleaned (conservators often call this “skinning”); it no longer has dirt or age-discolored varnish on it, but something of the original has been lost as well and the final effect is somewhat washed-out.  When it gets loud, sometimes it feels a little brittle rather than full, not unlike the early generation of DDD recordings.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4/Mozart Concerto 25

As far as which is better, it boils down to a question of taste.  Just as for the interpretation, one might debate the relative merits of the pianists of this era who made excellent recordings of the Beethoven concerti (Artur Rubinstein, Wilhelm Kempff, Rudolf Serkin, and many others) much depends on what your ears and your sound system perceive as too much background noise, tape hiss, and distortion.  Being somebody who loves vintage live recordings, I can put up with a lot of imperfections and still enjoy a great performance, but I know many people who do not share this opinion. 

If what you are after is a remastering with nearly-modern sonics as far as extraneous noise (or lack thereof) is concerned, you will find HDTT a great improvement over Sony’s remastering.  If you don’t care as much about that, you will probably prefer the warmer, most spacious Sony version which can be had at a budget price and includes all five of the Beethoven piano concerti, the Mozart 25, both Brahms concerti, and some Brahms solo piano works as well.

Editors note: I have heard the HDTT transfer of this recording and I must say the sound is of the remastered version is excellent by any means…!. Buy It!!

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