Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5, Triple Concerto / Fleisher

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I didn't at all take to Fleisher's account of Beethoven No. 3, but I must say that this is a most impressive and exciting account of the Emperor, aided and abetted by a wonderful accompaniment from Szell and his orchestra—and, I mustn't forget, by a most intelligently balanced recording.

Fleisher plays the first movement with splendid brio and the dash with which he gives out the opening flourishes is equalled by the orchestra's attack and energy when it starts the tutti. In one passage of brilliant semiquavers he tends to hurry very slightly, both times it comes, but in general his rhythm is excellent. There are, too, passages of most lovely liquid playing, a kind of brush of quiet sound, beautiful not only as sound but admirable in that they let woodwind solos come through without any forcing by the players. Fleisher is obviously always aware of what's going on in the orchestra and knows when he should be taking part in chamber music, rather than always holding the front of the stage. He does indulge in a wide range of speeds but not, I suppose, more than is usually done. The slow movement is played simply by both soloist and orchestra, as it should be— yet it's a difficult thing to play something so apparently simply but make it as moving as it is here.

At the very end of the movement (bar 80) you may be surprised to hear the strings play a long crotchet, arco, instead of the pizzicato to which we are all so used (which starts only at the last quaver of the bar). I asked Denis Matthews (always a mine of Beethoven information) about this and he told me he had played the concerto with Szell and was quite astonished at rehearsal when the expected 'plonk' from the strings didn't happen. Szell told him that Beethoven's autograph has the `pizz' written over the rests in the middle of the bar: and I now see that the preface in the Eulenburg miniature score states the same thing (despite which, the word is printed at the start of the bar!). This is not a trivial point, for it occurs, of course, at just about the most magical moment of the whole concerto and I do think that the long, grave, B flat from the strings is far more apt than the rather disturbing 'plonk' which emphasizes Beethoven's change from B to B flat in the wrong way.

The finale goes splendidly all through and I only don't like Fleisher's mannered playing of part of the main theme each time. I refer to the bars marked espressivo, which would appear to suggest something other than his jerky delivery of the right hand phrases. But this is a small point and there is no doubt that this is the sort of performance that will make you enjoy the music afresh, for the playing all through the concerto is both zestful and perceptive; Szell's contribution is an added source of pleasure—and the admirable engineering complements the players' artistry.

-- Gramophone [1/1966, reviewing the original LP release of the Emperor Concerto]


The apologies invariably made for Beethoven's Triple Concerto seem to have an effect on performances. I have rarely, if ever, known one which did not in some respect carry an apology with it, and I have rarely, if ever, known one which treated the work in the strong bravura way which makes for success in the Emperor or violin concertos. But here is just such a performance, and it makes one glory in what Beethoven did achieve in the work.

The scale of the work as conceived by Stern, Rose and Istomin is quite different from that of the rival performances on record, however enjoyable. The precision and stylishness of Schneiderhan, Fournier and Anda on DGG make for an eighteenthcentury manner in the outer movements, particularly the first. Some may well continue to prefer it, and technically the balance with the orchestra is better than on the new CBS disc, but the newly roused echoes of other Beethoven concertos place the Stern/ Rose/Istomin performance in the right period. It is after all a produce of the Fidelio years, the years which also produced the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Symphonies Nos. 4 to 6. It is possible to regard the formalism of the outer movements, their conscientious balance of thematic statements by each of the three soloists in turn, as a return to eighteenth-century practice, but the sheer size speaks rather of a really grand manner. And if the thematic material is more bald and less striking than that in other Beethoven concertos (at least in the first movement) there was a practical need with three soloists to keep ideas short.

In achieving a sense of size Stern, Rose and Istomin reveal their own stature in the relaxation of the playing. Lesser players would either screw up the tension or become ponderous, but these three over and over again convey the joy of their playing: the relaxed lilt of the second subject, Rose's natural warmth in the slow movement enunciation, the whole of the final Rondo Polacca. Not only has the main Polacca theme tremendous verve, the middle episode, when the `yatta-tah-ta-tah-ta' rhythm emerges on horn and lower woodwind, has a unique tang of East European music. Stern obviously takes the idea of a Polacca literally and exaggerates the first beat in each dactyllic phrase, giving a real bounce to the music, and he is matched by his colleagues.

Then the semiquaver allegro reprise of the main theme towards the end is taken very fast and very clear, the result extraordinarily exciting. You have only to compare the DGG performance, very fast too and excellent in its way, to realize why Stern's, Rose's and Istomin's playing is not merely vital but great. Equally exciting are the furious florid dialogues between violin and 'cello in the passage-work of first and last movements. All three soloists are masterly in varying the tension, in shaping towards climaxes, and Ormandy draws from the Philadelphia Orchestra yet another of his really full-blooded accompaniments. In relation to the soloists the orchestra may seem a little backward, but the salient tuttis burst out with great effect, to match the scale of the soloists' playing. The nearness of the soloists does of course make it hard for them to sound as though they are playing really softly, and initial sotto voce entries in the finale are too loud.

In my detailed comparisons I have occasionally found points in which rivals score over Stern, Rose and Istomin, and the other CBS version has Serkin in marvellous form actually dominating the performance from the least prominent solo part, the non-virtuoso piano role originally devised for the Archduke Rudolf. But no minor shortcomings can alter the positive merits of what could well come to be regarded as a classic record.

-- Gramophone [10/1965, reviewing the original LP release of the Triple Concerto]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SONY46549

  • UPC: 5099704654928

  • Label: Sony

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Conductor: Eugene Ormandy, George Szell

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra

  • Performer: Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, Leon Fleisher, Leonard Rose