Not a concerto for women?

Welcome to the 86th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Looking down the list of 150 or so recordings of this mighty warhorse of western concert repertoire, it is striking how few women have been considered worthy by the music industry to engrave their interpretation of it on record.

Although Martha Argerich has played it, I find no trace of her making a studio recording. Likewise Harriet Cohen, Wanda Landowska, Maria Yudina, Ilona Kabos, Annie Fischer, Ingrid Haebler, Moura Lympany, Alice Sara Ott, Yuja Wang, Maria Joao Pires, Angela Hewitt and dozens more who, though noted for the unique qualities of their Beethoven recitals, have not been summoned to record this particular work. I draw no definitive conclusion from this observation, merely highlight it as an anomaly of inequality.

In some way the absence of female performers makes the handful who have tackled the work all the more interesting. Gina Bachauer, for instance.

Greek and Jewish, Bachauer performed heroically for Allied forces during the second world war and went on to enjoy a substantial career around the world without ever becoming recognised as one of the lionesses of the keyboard. Her 1962 recording of the Emperor with Stanisław Skrowaczewski and the London Symphony Orchestra has an unassuming grace and a conversational manner, understated to a fault but unfailingly beautiful. It must rank on any shortlist for this concerto, not just for Bachauer’s contribution but for the matching restraint of the excellent conductor and orchestra.

Two grand dames enter the hustings. Dame Myra Hess, who kept classical recitals alive in London through the Blitz, made two recordings in 1952 and 1953. The first, with Eduard Van Beinum and the Concertgebouw, has a kind of choral quality to the quieter orchestral passages, a whispered pianissimo that Dame Myra enters into with a governessy rustle of petticoats. Hess is not an artist of Edwin Fischer calibre, who can alter the orchestral timbre with a half-frown in one eye, but there is much nobility to her interpretation and a profound awareness of tradition. The New York Philharmonic, her recording partners a year later cannot summon a matching subtlety or depth.

The Soviet pianist Maria Grinberg is disgraced by possibly the filthiest orchestra sound of any 1950s Beethoven recording, plus some fingering mishaps of her own, ruling her 1957 smash-and-grab with Alexander Gauk and the USSR State Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra totally out of the reckoning, despite some utterly inimitable soloist phrases. What were the Russians using for tape machines – tractors?

Other female interpreters we ought to consider if time were not short and the competition ferocious would be the unfailingly ethereal Hélène Grimaud (2007), the transcendent and surreal Alicia De Larrocha (1986) with superb Berlin sound, and the dogmatically prosaic Marguerite Long (1945), dedicatee of the Ravel G major concerto but way out of her metier in German classicism. Charles Munch is pictured on the cover of this record with a finger on his lips; you can hear why.

Oh, and one other – Mitsuko Uchida, performing in 1999 with the veteran Kurt Sanderling, master of both German and Russian traditions and possibly the most sympathetic accompanist of any conductor that ever lived. Time stands still in the adagio movement, just as it should, and Uchida plays barely above a sussuration.

The performance I most admired when I began listening critically to this concerto was Arthur Schnabel‘s – not the much-hailed 1932 release with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the LSO at Abbey Road but the 1942 issue with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony, an orchestra that had not yet acquired, or deserved, a world reputation. Schnabel, in this performance, bullies all around him – the piano, the conductor, the musicians – in the kind of gruff and bluff manner you’d imagine Beethoven might have adopted with his recalcitrant Viennese. By the finale, the soloist is happy with whatever’s going on and starting to enjoy himself. The wrong notes that creep in are now his own, and he’s not bothered. A great performance is not measured by the notes, and this one has many of the characteristics of immortality.

 

Arthur Rubinstein conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 1976 is another essential reference point, notwithstanding some plodding passages from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Rubinstein delivers a masterclass in concerto playing, pausing now and then as it to relight his cigar, or to take the phone number of the blushing page-turner. Splendid stuff.

Beyond 1980, the hustings are so crowded I have to limit the discussion to a select few before producing a longlist, something I have resisted until now in this series but which is unavoidable in this hotly jumbled field. Yefim Bronfman in David Zinman’s Zurich cycle of 2006 is exemplary not for any flashes of individuality but specifically for his subjugation of self to the whole. Few performances are so thoughtful and collegial.

Of two keyboard-led versions – Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Leif Ove Andsnes (2014) and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Jan Lisiecki – I find inspiration in the latter and calculation in the former; Lisiecki is full of unexpected elevations. I don’t buy into any of the period-instrument assaults, so don’t ask for JEG & Co. None of these worthies match the intensity of Emil Gilels in Cleveland with George Szell (1968) or Claudio Arrau with Otto Klemperer in 1957 – a pair of unflinching adult conversations. Another is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with Carlo Maria Giulini in Vienna (1979), acting like unruly Italian tourists with a flustered Austrian landlady – just lovely.

Who have I forgotten? Rudolf Serkin, Murray Perahia, Brendel, Ashkenazy, Solomon, Buchbinder, Glenn Gould, so many more. Time to draw the line. These 10 recordings of the Emperor are, in no particular order of merit, required listening:

1 Krystian Zimerman/Leonard Bernstein (1992)
2 Arthur Schnabel (1942)
3 Myra Hess (1952)
4 Gina Bachauer (1962)
5 Jan Lisiecki (2018)
6 Uchida (1999)
7 Bronfman (2006)
8 Backhaus (1927)
9 Edwin Fischer (1951)
10 Maurizio Pollini (1978)

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  • it is a pity that Richter never recorded this piece. Pires never played it – at least in public – nor did Argerich, as far as I know, but I would very much appreciate to have this confirmed. Arrau is also splendid in his two later recordings. MichelangelI too, specially with Celibidache. A pity also that Lupu’s accompaniment Is so poor. He deserved a better orchestra and a better conductor than the IPO and Mehta.

    • I don’t. Let’s say that Beethoven was not Horowitz’s strong suit-although some of his Beethoven is great, IMO this one. These favorites are largely personal any way.

  • Great list!
    On another note, has anyone ever noticed the 2nd movement sounds exactly like “Somewhere” from West Side Story? Any word if Bernstein used this for specific inspiration?

  • “Rubinstein delivers a masterclass in concerto playing, pausing now and then as it to relight his cigar, or to take the phone number of the blushing page-turner.” Beautifully written. Captures what many of us have always found so captivating about Rubinstein’s playing: without sacrificing profundity or anything else, he never loses the element of human interaction in his performances.

    I don’t know all these recordings, but I will say this for the de Larrocha version: she plays it with the refinement she gave to Mozart instead of playing it as so many do, like a Brahms concerto that escaped from the catalog. The Rondo responds particularly well to this treatment: somehow I never noticed its kinship with the Rondo of K482 as much as when I heard her play it.

  • I find Rubinstein’s version with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony more convincing than the one with Barenboim, though he did the whole cycle with both.

  • For Rubinstein, I prefer his earlier recordings of the ‘Emperor’ with Krips (1956, Symphony of the Air) and Leinsdorf (1964, Boston) to the one mentioned. The Leinsdorf is the more fastidious and better recorded; colors of the orchestra register more. With Krips, Rubinstein’s playing has a bit more energy and freedom, compensating for occasional carelessness. They were making a set of all five concertos in about ten days; the Leinsdorf cycle was more spread out.

    Most of Rubinstein’s remakes and re-remakes from 1968-1976, when he was in his eighties and his sight and hearing were in decline, don’t seem to me to offer much to make them essential listening. Besides that last cycle of the Beethoven concertos with Barenboim, there were also the Brahms 1st (Mehta) and 2nd (Ormandy), the 2nd piano concertos of Chopin, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff (all with Ormandy). In all these cases, I am happier with the pianist’s earlier attempts. He did make some good solo and chamber music recordings in that period.

    • I find many of your comments fair and understandable, tho there’s little evidence that Rubinstein was ever hearing-impaired — that rumor was started by NYC critic Harris Goldsmith, who apparently disapproved of the pianist’s use of the una corda pedal.

      As for the later recordings, Rubinstein stayed in excellent condition until c. 1974, when macular degeneration set in, distracting him enough to take the edge off his confidence and accuracy. So the later re-recordings, IMO, all have worthy things to offer–greater clarity, honesty, and control in the Rachmaninoff 2nd, more weight and spaciousness in the Brahms B-flat, and, surprisingly, even faster tempos and greater fire in his Philadelphia Saint-Saens and Falla tapings.

      As for the Beethoven Five, I think it’s fascinating how different, his three sets are conceptually: the Krips, freewheeling and improvisatory; the Leinsdorf, Toscaninian and Juilliard-scrupulous; the Barenboim, for once genuinely mittel-European. The existences of all three are justified.

      Focusing now on the Barenboim set, it has proven controversial for a couple of reasons. First, its original disc issue was poorly balanced: piano in your lap. Why? in 1974 Thomas Z. Shepard, RCA’s new Red Seal VP, fired Rubinstein’s producer Max Wilcox … whom Rubinstein insisted produce the Barenboim set anyhow; Wilcox did so, but didn’t handle the post-production, which generated the lopsided balance cited above. (Fortunately, the CD reissues are vastly superior, providing, in fact, some of the finest sound accorded the pianist.)

      The second reason for the controversy? Tempos are notably broader than those in the pianist’s earlier cycles. But 50 years ago many performers (Serkin, Fleisher, Brendel) opted for speed, later soloists not so much–these days Rubinstein’s tempos seem unremarkable next to the generous timings of Arrau, Gould, and Perahia. So these final versions have their strengths, sounding, for one thing, better than ever on the remixed CDs: out of Rubinstein’s entire discography, these 1975 tapings (by legendary UK engineer Kenneth Wilkinson) enjoy the most natural hall sound, the most convincing piano/orchestra balance, and the truest reproduction of Rubinstein’s velvet cantilenas. As for Barenboim’s accompaniments, they’re built from the bottom up and exceptionally suited to the pianist’s late-career approach. Plus, within this roomier framework, Rubinstein still packs his old power and eloquence: in the “Emperor” first movement, those roaring two-against-three passages are, if anything, cleaner and steadier than before.

      So, for me, the Rubinstein/Barenboim “Emperor” is hors concours. I side with Norman.

      • Good comments on Rubinstein, F. P. Walter. His Saint-Saens G-minor concerto ranks with Moiseiwitch’s’. The four Chopin etudes from his Moscow recital, a live 1965 Albeniz “Navarra” in Carnegie Hall, and Falla’s “Noches en los jardines d’Espana” that you mention. He played the pants off “Navarra”, better than anyone in all Space. The Chopin concerto on his 90th birthday is careful, he was then blind, but intact and controlled.

  • When I read these rankings, which are all very personal, I think they are just a provocation. Perhaps necessary, but only provocation. If I understand perfectly (and I agree) the choice not to insert phonographic recordings with period instruments, I do not at all understand completely immature names for Beethoven, such as Lisiecki, or obsolete as Uchida. In a classification that ‘generically’ excludes Perahia and Gould, he does not even mention Leon Fleisher and Friedrich Gulda, and he does not even bother to investigate whether the greatest Beethovenian female pianist in Italy, Maria Tipo, has ever left evidence of his recording of the ‘Emperor, it’s not a ranking: it’s a provocation or, worse, a joke.

      • Good morning, Peter. I believe I have all the discography of Mitsuko Uchuda, and I must say that practically but it moved my feelings. His elegance is always an end in itself, there is no interpretative research, there is no defined character, and unfortunately there is not even provocation, as in Gould. Among the great pianists it is – for me – certainly the smallest.

  • Women are the wiser sex – perhaps more of them realize there is no need to record a piece already recorded thousands of times, when there is so much great music out there rarely or never recorded.

  • Thank you for printing the famous “Hurok Presents” poster, proclaiming Gina Bachauer as the “Queen of Pianists”- which caused the irrepressible Earl Wild to retort “Oh no she’s not – I am!!!”

  • Gilels with the Philharmonia and Leopold Ludwig 1957 does it for me. Full House of bliss when accompanied by the 4th on the same cd.
    For sentimental issues, I’d also add Stephen (then only) Bishop, with the BBC and Sir Colin. It was my first lp of this mighty work.

  • Ashkenazy’s playing of the tender passages (the long gentle passages in the first movement, and the whole of the second movement) in the CSO/Solti recording is of rare beauty, some of the most exquisite playing you’ll ever hear. I heard that so many times as a youngster that it’s still the version that ‘plays in my head’ anytime I hear that concerto.

  • In such a field it is hard to avoid being almsot conventional in one’s choices and I don’t think many people would disagree with most of L.’s shortlist. I don’t share his enhtusiasm for Lisiecki, and think Uchida did better with Rattle. In my top ten would probably be Arrau with Davis and Kovacevich, also coincidentally with Davsi. But it’s an impossible game and I thank L. for his thoughts.

  • Thanks for this essay. I thought of Hess and Bachauer; whose ancestry and wartime work I didn’t know. Ten points for Dame Myra’s “governessy rustle of petticoats.” Elly Ney would have fainted or died first. Dame Myra mayn’t have been good with children; she firmly deflected Benno Moiseiwitsch’s proposal.

    Grimaud’s version is with a wolf to either side? I like the brisk, highly detailed Bronfman/Zinman/Tonhalle box, and Robert Levin’s fortepiano improvising his own Mozart and Beethoven cadenzas for Choral Fantasy and concertos except this one. His conductor and engineer had angina waiting for the trill to bring in the orchestra. Edwin Fischer and Kempff play their own witty cadenzas. Carl Reinecke’s cadenzas for the third and foourth are as good as Beethoven’s.

    You mentioned earlier my favorite Elly Ney’s three recordings: late Noricord studio Nuernberg SO/Hoogstraten; live 1956 Abendroth/BPO; and her best, Boehm/VPO 1956, the most masterful I know. perfecting the extreme ideal of Eugen D’Albert’s 1930 Berlin Radio broadcast of his wildly inaccurate first movement. She’s one of few women to record Brahms II, Max Fiedler/BPO and live Konwitschny/LGO; There’s a YouTube video of Brahms I first movement. She recorded Mozart XV, Beethoven II, and Strauss “Burleske” with Fritz Zaun, BSOO, and Hoogstraten.

    I agree on Schnabel/Frederick Stock/Chicago 1942. Their finer fourth concerto has a unique detail: Schnabel holds his last two chords in the primo beyond the orchestra’s, an electrifying effect. No other pianist I’ve heard including Scnabel earlier and later has this grsplendid idea.

    Poor Maria Grinberg does sound a mess; I like her fourth concerto with Reinecke’s cadenza. Maria Yudina could have done it; her relentless “Hammerklavier” shows that. Even I cannot conjure a Landowska “Emperor”, but why not after Marguerite Long? Ste. Wanda’s 12th sonata and three Mozart concertos tantalise, mercifully on piano.

  • Not surprisingly, everybody has their personal favourites and Norman’s select ten are as good as they come. Can I, however, put in a word for one of our greatest pianists – Clifford Curzon. There is a wonderful pairing of him performing the Emperor and the G Major Concerto in Munich in 1977, with Kubelik in charge of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (available on the Audite label). Kubelik has something interesting to say about every bar of the accompaniment and Curzon finds a splendid balance between the heroic and the poetic, though he is even finer in the G Major work.

  • Guiomar Novaes recorded the Emperor Concerto for Vox. There was an Elly Ney recording on Collosseum but I have never heard it.

  • Many years ago (in the 70s?) there was a recording by Hanae Nakajima. I think it was on a cheapo label, the sort that was only available in Woolworths and the like.
    Nevertheless, on the then BBC Record Review programme it came out as #1 choice.
    Does anyone remember the record or indeed know what happened to Ms Nakajima?

  • Mitsuko Uchida was given the accolade, not so much by the music industry, as by the Berlin Philharmonic recordings arm, of the first physical box set of concert performances not devoted to symphony collections. This set of the piano concertos comes from the concerto cycle with the Berlin Phil and Rattle. So glorious is it, in terms of the pianism, blend of sound between the musicians off and at the keyboard, the recording quality, that I wonder at the status still given to the early 1960s Kempff/BPO/Leitner stereo set. Uchida is simply more virtuosic than Kempff in the barnstorming passages, equally introspective in the slow movements, and the BPO seems more alert under Rattle, especially for the Third and Fifth Concertos.

    As an aside, an honourable mention for Clifford Curzon’s late 1950s recording with Kna./VPO. A really Great, British pianist, putting the composer first rather than the pianist’s ego for duration of his recording career. Virtuosic in the Fifth where it needs to be, without overly seeming so ( as Michelangeli can seem to be in rapid passagework or rhetorical flourishes ). Going by the results he achieved with Szell in the Brahms D minor, it’s a shame Szell wasn’t at the helm of the VPO for the Beethoven.

  • At the top of nearly every professional pianist’s and Beethoven aficionado’s list of the most powerful Beethoven Concerti recordings to date is the recording of all the Beethoven Concerti with Leon Fleisher and George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. It is safe to say, that this one recording was the source of inspiration for an entire generation plus of piano soloists. “The Emperor Concerto” is a particularly iconic recording. I’m wondering where you are doing your research if this seminal recording wasn’t even mentioned on or off your list?? Jan Lisiecki is criticised and on your list but Fleisher and Barenboim aren’t even mentioned on the “forgotten” list ???? Strange.

    • The Fleisher/Szell recording was made during the 1960/1961 season which saw the return of Marc Lifschey as Principal oboe. The wind playing by the four Principals Lifschey, Marcellus, Sharp and Goslee support every nuance that Fleisher brings to the piece. As for performances by women, there is a tape of Alicia de Larrocha with the Cleveland Orchestra and Sixten Ehrling which imo is well worth hearing.

  • my personal favourite recording of Beethoven 5th concerto is Christian Zacharias / Hans Vonk. a wonderful and very modern interpretation.

  • A Gilels cycle from late 50s with Czech PO under Sanderling is pd good, but sound is a bit iffy. Am certain there’s a random gunshot at one point.

  • Since this is becoming something close to an exhaustive survey, I’ll mention that I grew up with (and very much grew to love) Firkušný/Steinberg/Pittsburgh. Budget issue on Pickwick.

  • Many mistakes in here Norman! What kind of “journalism” is this? Argerich played the piece twice in her life, which is not “often”, you can watch her talking about it in an interview. If anybody could find out where and when she played it, I would be very grateful.
    Larrocha btw also recorded the piece with LA Philharmonic and Mehta! Leonskaja played it often but never recorded it.

    Several woman pianists played and recorded the piece as well, here´s a short list:

    – Elly Ney / Hoogstraten (on Colosseum)
    – Yudina / Rahklin (on Vista Vera)
    – Bruchollerie / Ludwig / Berlin Phil (on Meloclassic)
    – Lympany / Scherman (on Music Appreciation Records)
    – Annie Fischer / Peter Mura (on Doron)
    – Biret / Wit (on IBA/Naxos)
    – Tureck (1st movement on Vai DVD, studio Canada 1955)
    – Gornostaeva / Fedoseyev (on lpclassics)
    etc.

    Some of these are live but nonetheless they are comercially available!

    Since Tipo was mentioned I only found old concert programmes and recordings (studio, live, archives etc) with nr. 1 and 4.

    My favourite recording remains Stephen Kovacevich playing / conducting the Australian Chamber Orchestra on EMI

  • thank you very much for mentioning my somewhat self-indulgent novel BEETHOVEN AMONG THE COWS. the title is among the few good things about the book. may I respectfully disagree with your ten best versions of the Emperor by listing my own three favourites? Friedrich Gulda/Horst Stein; Eschenbach/Ozawa; Kissin/Levine. Eschenbach is unmatched on the first movement, Gulda on the second. Pity that neither Argerich nor Richter recorded the Emperor. But Idil Biret’s rendering is excellent. It is such a pleasure to read your writings. Rukun Advani, Ranikhet-in-the-Himalaya, India

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