BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 "Emperor."
Walter Gieseking, pianist; Philharmonia Orch/Rafael Kubelik, cond. (Concerto No. 1); Walter Gieseking, pianist; Grosses Funkorchester/Artur Rother, cond.
MUSIC & ARTS 1145 (F) (ADD) TT: 67:40

PROKOFIEV-PLETNEV: Cinderella Suite, Op. 87. RAVEL: Mother Goose Suite.
Martha Argerich/Mikhail Pletnev, pianists
DGG B0003109 (F) (DDD) TT: 49:47

MOZART: Sonata in D, K. 381 (123a). Sonata in C, K. 521. Sonata in B flat, K. 358 (186c). Sonata in F, K. 497. Adagio and Allegro for Mechanical Organ in F minor, K. 594.
Arthur Balsam and Nadia Reisenberg, pianists
BRIDGE 9148 (F) (M) (ADD) TT: 68:00

What two of these keyboard discs have in common are performances by two pianists and four hands on one piano (because the vintage Bridge is a mono issue, one assumes the use of a single instrument). Otherwise, there is no competition: neither the duplication of repertory nor a comparable performance standard. Forget the Mozart despite the dedication of this reissue, which does not even list dates of the perfomer’s lives: Nadia Reisenberg, 1904 to 1983, Arthur Balsam 1906 to 1994. No one, including Musical Heritage Society which issued these performances originally on LPs or Donald Manildi’s vast piano archive at the University of Maryland in College Park, has data on when they were recorded, although hard sound – better heard as mono on my rig, which is to say tonally less aggressive if not otherwise subtly nuanced – suggests the later ‘50s or early ‘60s. This is not widely available music on current discs: Naxos issued only Vol. 1 with Jenö Jandö and Zsuzsa Kollár; Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz recorded the complete, comparatively brief repertoire ca. 1999 for DGG (available as a midprice import), Zoltán Kocsis and Dëszo Ránki likewise for Hungaroton (a very pricey import), and Ingrid Häbler with Ludwig Hoffmann in a Philips duopack, not new but in stereo. If you want the music, shop Arkiv, but spend the little extra for finer performances; these on Bridge are musicianly in a basic sense only, most valuable because it gets everything on a single disc (which is not to say everything that Mozart wrote for 4-hand keyboard), although it is not a budget issue.

Argerich and Pletnev play Ravel’s Mother Goose ravishingly on one piano, as it was originally written – she the upper register, he the lower. This is not, however, the version for one piano that Argerich recorded alone (available only as a DGG import today in a multi-disc Argerich Collection issued in 1997). The new team – new to me – are inimitably nimble hands in finely-tanned cordovan gloves. The partnership is comparably bewitching in Pletnev’s piquant nine-movement suite for two pianos from the evening-long ballet Cinderella (which he conducted 10 years ago with the Russian National Orchestra on DGG, but without the inspiration of Argerich to unleash his full interpretive resources). It is a tour-de-force, superlatively recorded, leaving one only to wish that an unused half-hour of space could have included more music for the price. The 4-hand La Valse of Ravel not only would have fit with space left over but have been a neat stylistic bridge from Ma mère l’oye to Cinderella. No matter, aficionados of piano playing on the highest technical and interpretive level have cause to rejoice and smash their piggy-banks.

Now for the two hands on one piano of Walter Gieseking, who died in October 1956 about the time Reisenberg and Balsam may have recorded their Mozart duos. He made an earlier recording of Beethoven’s First Concerto in 1937 wth Hans Rosbaud conducting the Berliner Staatsoper Orchestra (only Wilhelm Kempff and Artur Schnabel preceded him on discs). Available on American Columbia-78s, it was singled out by no less than Irving Kolodin for its lightness of spirit. This recording made 11 years later in London retains that same espirit and adds a Philharmonia Orchestra accompaniment at the early peak of its powers in an Abbey Road Studio recording of superbly registered mono, perhaps overseen by Walter Legge as producer. For years, Kubelik’s conducting was kept anonymous because of contractual conflicts, but it is the strongest I know from the decade before Mercury recorded his musicianship in Chicago (1950-53). Gieseking’s “Emperor” is far more famous as the first complete recording ever made in stereo, made in Berlin’s Freisender studio during January 1945 as Allied bombs burst in air during the first movement cadenza, with Artur Rother conducting a Berlin Radio Orchestra still intact, playing near the level of the Philharmoniker in those Apocalyptic days. The performance by Gieseking is rugged, even magisterial in the best sense, brilliant almost in the extreme, and M-&-A’s 2004 remastered sound is a miracle to ears that remember the first of that firm’s three issues to date. Only a couple of momentary “hot” spots remain when the strings play out in the topmost register. This may not be an essential purchase for readers who have one (or perhaps) several “Emperors” already, but it is an historic treasure if we ignore the date, venue, politics and postwar picketing of Gieseking when he finally returned to play in Carnegie Hall. He was a protean artist with reputedly the most comprehensive repertory of any pianist in his time – perhaps ever – who died too young after a huge, hot London luncheon to fuel his large Alsatian body. He resumed recording a Beethoven sonata for what was to have been a complete set of all 32, but incomplete when his heart stopped and he fell off the piano bench dead. I never cared for the sonatas that were finished and released – a daintiness prevailed – nor for that matter the complete solo Mozart he did complete. But his Debussy and Ravel were glorious, and many earlier individual performances such as these have surfaced to honor his memory and his artistry.

R.D. (October 2004)