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CLASSICAL  July 2004

CLASSICAL July 2004

Subject:

Brahms with Curzon and Szell

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 12 Jul 2004 08:06:24 -0500

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          Clifford Curzon
      Brahms, Franck, Litolff

* Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d
* Franck: Symphonic Variations*
* Litolff: Concerto symphonique No. 4 - Scherzo*

Clifford Curzon (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/George Szell, London
Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult*
Decca 289 466376-2 Total time: 73:25

Summary for the Busy Executive: Two classics in great recordings.

Clifford Curzon hated recording in general, and his relations with Szell
were fractious at worst and civil at best.  Together, however, they made
what many consider the finest recorded performance of the Brahms concerto.
Szell recorded the Brahms first at least four times: once with Schnabel,
once with Fleisher, once with Curzon, and once with Serkin.  Three of
the four recordings are first-rate (Schnabel, despite some electrifying
moments, simply doesn't have the fingers for the work), but the Curzon
is special, particularly when the Serkin and the Fleisher would be at
the top of my list, if not for the Curzon.  The Fleisher recording is
excellent, but has neither the neurasthenia of the Serkin nor the sheer
weight of the Curzon.

 From the opening bars, this reading grabs your attention.  Szell gets
the titanic orchestral introduction to rage like no other.  Again, the
orchestra has a weight missing from other Szell recordings, without
sacrificing Szell's characteristic clarity.  Curzon proves a match for
the orchestral mass, with a magisterial entry and huge singing tone.
Almost everyone else, in contrast, tends to sound a bit hysterical,
hanging on to the keyboard by their fingernails.  His first diminuendo
also impresses in that his playing doesn't lose its heroic character,
simply because he's gotten softer.  In all, a certain gravitas clings
to this reading: Szell and the orchestra move more deliberately and also
more lyrically than in the conductor's other accounts of the score;
Curzon, unlike other pianists, exploits extremes of dynamics and touch,
rather than of character.  His lyrical playing never becomes lightweight
or fey.  As I listened, the ghost of Beethoven seemed to shine more
brightly - appropriately so, given Brahms's awe of that composer.

The end of the first movement screws up the tension and rhythmic
excitement, which finds its release only at the beginning of the second
movement.  Again, Szell takes a tempo slower than his wont, drawing out
the long, lyrical "Benedictus" theme not only without getting mired, but
also carrying the listener along out over great vistas.  Curzon treats
his part as a great Beethoven adagio - something like the second movement
to the Pathetique piano sonata.  Some of his most affecting playing
occurs here, in the largely two-part solo writing.  I usually think of
this concerto as Young Man's Music, in that the work deals in emotional
extremes - either great storms or great tenderness.  Curzon and Szell
give me a new view: one closer to the psychic balance and maturity of
late Brahms.  The music is tender, but Szell and Curzon seem more like
old men looking back than like young men melting in the moment.  It fits
the elegy for Schumann at least half in Brahms's mind at the time -
tender, but not mawkish or out of place at a funeral.

The finale may disappoint those expecting more Sturm und Drang.  Surely,
Szell and Serkin's account, for instance, jabs like a boxer. But Curzon
and Szell eschew immediate jolts and sparks for a long-term rhetorical
strategy: triumph emerging over the storm.  For me, it pays off.  The
final switch to the major mode, often seeming a bit perfunctory or
obligatory, here becomes the point to which everything has been heading,
the crown of the movement, where shafts of light appear to break through
the clouds, in a bit of Beethovenian pastoralism.  One feels the weight
at the end, rather than at the beginning.  To me, this reading bristles
with large-scale risks that come off beautifully.  I don't really believe
in the Best Recording of X, but I certainly won't argue with those who
choose this one.

Usually, Cesar Franck's music gets me looking at my watch or for the
sign to the nearest exit.  It's probably all my fault, but excepting
the slow movement to the symphony, I've yet to hear a really first-rate
musical idea.  Furthermore, the construction is so clunky, the large
works seem held together with duct tape.  The Symphonic Variations, on
the other hand, strike me as one of Franck's tightest and most finished
works.  I still miss a really memorable idea (other than an annoyingly
memorable one, like "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini"),
but I have to admit that Franck does well by the cards he deals himself.
The title, of course, inflates expectations.  Yeah, it's variations, but
a divertissement, rather than something grand - a distinction made all
the more obvious, because it immediately follows the Brahms concerto on
the program.  I admit I can't get myself all that worked up about this
versus that performance.  I don't think there's much to recommend Boult
and Curzon over Fleisher and Szell, or vice versa.  You probably won't
be buying the CD for the Franck anyway.

On to more delightful things.  Litolff wrote a nearly perfect work in
this scherzo movement - a toy of moving parts, where everything operates
beautifully together, like a fine timepiece.  I've never heard a bad
performance of it, so therefore one recommends one over another with
difficulty.  Curzon and Boult, however, show me something surprising -
an account of Mendelssohnian fleet-footedness that skips like lambs in
Spring and which gives due weight to the music without over-emphasis.
Everybody contributes.  The strings, with great unanimity of tone, provide
the delicate motor, the tactus, that allows the pianist to fly.  The
triangle for once doesn't play as if afraid it will never be heard from
again, while the piccolo stands out for its cleanliness of tone and
brilliance.  The winds are mostly suave, and at those points when called
upon for accent, never distort.  Boult masters balance, while keeping
the infectious fun of the piece.  To sum up, in this ideal chamber-like
performance, everybody's listening to everyone else and comes up with
as wonderful an account as you're likely to hear.

The performances all stem from the Sixties, but Decca has apparently
massaged the sound.  They yield very little to the all-digital latest
and greatest.

Steve Schwartz

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