SwissDave | Switzerland | 04/24/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"These are fantastic live Cologne performances of Beethoven's Piano Concertos No. 4 (with Klemperer, February 27, 1956) and No. 2 (with Rosbaud, November 18, 1957). Sound quality may be a concern (the remastering seems very well-done, even so, the sound quality clearly wouldn't deserve a five-star rating), but ultimately, whether one "needs" this probably depends on whether one is a diehard fan of one of the artists.
There are no new interpretative insights to Fleisher's conception of these concertos compared to his studio recordings. Whoever thinks Klemperer sets a slower, more monumental or even heavy-gaited frame in No. 4 than Szell errs. Admittedly, the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra is no Cleveland Orchestra, and the mono sound reveals lots of tape hiss and some congestion in the tuttis, and the master tape may have been driven a bit on the hot side - but dynamics come out well, especially the piano's. Fleisher plays the long first movement cadenza with such panache, how much I'd love to have been there to hear it live!
There's less tape hiss and tape overload and/or distortion in the also mono recording of No. 2, but the recording is more distant and dynamically compressed. Even so, I wish I could say all of Fleisher's commercial recordings sounded better (some do, not all)... The performance itself is a gem, sounding positively Mozartean and then again, just right. The more I listen to it, the more I wonder if I prefer Fleisher's slightly harder-driven (it's in front of an audience, after all) account of the piano part to his studio recording (which would make this an automatic top favourite - again, interpretatively, Fleisher's conception of the piece is similar to his studio account, realised perhaps with a little more joie de vivre here). Again, the expansive "tacked-on" (late Beethoven, whereas the concerto itself is his earliest composition in the form) first movement cadenza dazzles and delights. The slow movement is memorable and suffers only from slightly dry-sounding strings (the piano's tinkling overtones when the music comes to that serene almost-standstill come off impressively naturally). Rosbaud has remained an unjustly neglected conductor anyhow, whoever doesn't know him should hear him (try some of his Bruckner, for example). But again, the Cologne band is no Cleveland Orchestra of the period, and the recording doesn't allow for as much orchestral detail to be heard. All in all, as a complement to the the studio recordings, these live versions should not be missed. It's really only the somewhat hissy mono sound that precludes them from being a true alternative.
The CD comes with a Klemperer Egmont Overture from 1955 as an encore/filler that I have so far made no effort to compare with his studio and other live recordings. The reason for me to get this was to hear Fleisher live before he made his studio recordings with Szell. I had not expected these performances to be so great, though. Wow!!
[UPDATE: the same performances (the two piano concerto live performances - the filler is different) are now available on the new Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4 Medici Masters/Arts release. I hope they had access to the original master tapes, and that the sound quality is superior, but haven't yet had a chance to compare. But it may be worth looking for reviews there as soon as the CD becomes available.]
Greetings from Switzerland, David."