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)