CDs expand discographies of under-represented artists
The careers of some great artists were less fruitful than most due to peculiarities of personality or tragedy. Recordings by such artists have always commanded special attention. But recent releases actually expand the discographies of two unforgettable musicians.
A pianist for the soul
One of the reasons English pianist Clifford Curzon had such an odd career is also one of the touchstones of his uniquely treasurable insights.
“I don’t really want people to know about me,” he once said. “The effort of being a public person is so great, and I’m really not a public person. I’m a very private person.” Yet his career forced him to do personally revealing work, exposed before thousands of people.
Curzon was a pianist of impossible sensitivity. One critic indulged only slight hyperbole in writing that Curzon had 20 gradations of pianissimo — very soft. He developed that ability because he had to, in order to express the nuances he felt within the music he loved, which increasingly concentrated on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, but also Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms.
Decca records has released a four-CD set in its Original Masters series that includes the first issue of two Mozart piano concerti with George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic, along with reissues of other concerti and solo piano music.
Mozart’s Piano Concerti Nos. 23 and 27 — how sterile numbers are for identifying wondrous music — were recorded in Vienna in December 1964. Curzon often played Mozart’s last Piano Concerto, and left a beautiful recording of it with Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra. One never missed the chance to hear Curzon play Mozart.
Szell was a Mozartean of the utmost perspicacity, and achieved warmer results with the Vienna Philharmonic than he often did with the Cleveland Orchestra, with which he left many great recordings of Mozart with pianists Robert Casadesus and Rudolf Serkin. The slow movement of the Concerto No. 23 achieves transcendence that Curzon and Szell didn’t achieve in their other recordings.
The reissued discs are led by one devoted to unsurpassable accounts of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D major and the later of two sets of Four Impromptus. Like his teacher Artur Schnabel, Curzon played a key role in establishing Schubert piano sonatas as viable concert works.
The new compilation also includes a fabulous account of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Szell made in 1949 in London. But the Curzon/Szell Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 is superfluous: Curzon could play the virtuoso material, but other pianists were more temperamentally suited to the repertoire. Its place on the CD should have been taken by chamber music, a vital part of his excellence that is missing from the set.
Decca’s album, labeled Volume 1, includes other virtuoso repertoire that is well performed, and Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No. 2, an appealing composition Curzon recorded in 1951 shortly after giving the world premiere.
Italian conductor Guido Cantelli was 35 and heir apparent to Arturo Toscanini when he died in a plane crash leaving Paris on Dec. 24, 1956. Now Testament records has begun an important project to issue Cantelli’s concerts with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony with two four-CD sets taken from broadcast concerts in 1949 and 1950. The sound is surprisingly realistic, with minimal noise. The performances show a technical command on the part of the then 29-year-old conductor that has been encountered since only with Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez and a very few others.
William Schuman’s ballet “Undertow” was tricky for Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra a decade ago, and the ranks of the NBC Symphony 40 years earlier were much less adept at contemporary idioms when they played it for Cantelli. Performances of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Chant du Rossignol,” Feruccio Busoni’s “Tanzwalzer” and other 20th-century works also show Cantelli’s keen ear for harmony and pitch as well as rhythm and line.
Cantelli’s repertoire was exceptionally broad, including the Magnificat from Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers” of 1610 that he led on Christmas Day in 1950, as well as baroque music. The lithe but powerful performances Cantelli achieved in standard repertoire from Mozart and Haydn, to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Wagner show the young conductor achieving exceptional coherence and style.
The phrasing in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, for example, is simply stunning in its honesty and completeness. And while the slow movement may not be as dreamy as the composer intended — thinking back on life while sitting in a comfortable chair after some wine — it is beautiful and expressive.
Cantelli’s commercial recordings are also worth exploring. His Debussy album, also on Testament but with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, is among the most nearly perfect recordings ever made — especially “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.”