Serkin plays Beethoven

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Serkin plays Beethoven

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5, 'Emperor'
  • Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9, 'Kreutzer'

If Glenn Gould had heard this recording of the Emperor Piano Concerto before he heard and was mesmerized by the 1942 Schnabel recording with Stock and the Chicago SO, would he have enjoyed it as much, and been as much enslaved by it, as he was by the Schnabel? I very much doubt it. Serkin’s is a very brilliant performance, brilliantly accompanied by Walter at his exacting best; but his performance has little of Schnabel’s wit and profundity or astonishing variousness of gesture. Either approach would probably have suited Beethoven, who loved to dazzle his audiences every bit as much as he liked to cajole and move them. But Serkin’s, in 1941, is the less mature performance. It is also less agreeably recorded. The sound, as it comes over on this Biddulph transfer, is very clear but the piano tone occasionally discolours in slow chordal passages and I found it difficult to adjudicate satisfactorily between the piano and the orchestra. Set the volume correctly for the piano and you will probably find yourself wincing before the orchestra’s loud and icy blast. Serkin’s 1944 recording of the Fourth Piano Concerto with Toscanini and the NBC SO remains a more representative example of his emergent genius at this point in his career.
It is astonishing, however, that this 1941 recording by Busch and Serkin of the Kreutzer Sonata has never previously appeared in the UK. If it had done so, it would almost certainly have swept the field as it apparently did in North and South America. The sound of the instruments here is bright, full and forward, with only minimal interferences from surfaces that occasionally bump and jostle for our attention. There is, however, a very strange hiatus 15 seconds into track 4 of the present CD, a second’s complete break in transmission during the violin’s slow introduction.'

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