About this Recording
8.110776 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 8) (1950, 1938)

Great Pianists: Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), Volume 8
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5

Benno Moiseiwitsch was born in ‘the cradle of Russian pianism’ Odessa, in 1890. At the age of nine he won the Anton Rubinstein prize, and after being told by the Guildhall School of Music in London that they could teach him nothing, he went, at the age of fourteen, to Vienna where he studied with the great teacher Theodore Leschetizky. At first Leschetizky told the young Benno that he could play better with his feet, but young Benno was undeterred and spent nearly two years in Vienna perfecting his art with the great master. His British début was in Reading in 1908 and his international career took him to every corner of the world.

At sixty years of age Moiseiwitsch continued a gruelling schedule of recitals and concerto appearances throughout the world, a schedule he had undertaken for the previous thirty years. He spent the first three months of 1949 touring America playing in Philadelphia, Kansas, New York, New Orleans, Orlando, Memphis, Norfolk Virginia, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, Des Moines, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He continued on to Toronto, Montreal and Mexico City. After spending the summer of 1949 in Britain he was back in the United States performing in places such as Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City and Washington.

In January and February of 1950 Moiseiwitsch was playing in Cincinnati, Montreal, Miami, Orlando, Boston, Toronto and New York. In March he played in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Fresno and San Francisco, and whilst conductor Pierre Monteux had a week’s holiday, the baton of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was taken up by a young Leonard Bernstein. Monteux, however, returned to conduct Moiseiwitsch and the orchestra in a performance of one of the concertos Moiseiwitsch was playing on his tour, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Also on the programme were Weber’s Oberon Overture, the Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Felix Borowsky and César Franck’s Prelude, Aria and Fugue arranged for orchestra by Vittorio Gui. Marjory M. Fisher wrote in the San Francisco News, ‘With rare dignity and poise of demeanour, minus any physical contortions or unnecessary movements, Mr Moiseiwitsch played superbly and proved a veritable aristocrat of the keyboard…..One has rarely heard such a command of tone colouring demonstrated by a keyboard artist’. Many critics commented on the quality of the slow movement as played by Moiseiwitsch. Marie Hicks Davidson wrote in the San Francisco Call Bulletin, ‘Moiseiwitsch’s best pianism – all above par – was in the Largo, done in slow pace and with legato passages of poignant beauty’. In May he gave a concert in Paris and then returned to Britain to give concerts in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At the Glasgow concert Moiseiwitsch played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and a few days later he went to HMV’s Abbey Road Studios for the second of only two recording sessions that year to record Beethoven’s Third Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent.

Gramophone reviewer Andrew Porter hated the HMV recording when he reviewed it in April 1952. Referring to it as ‘a second-rate affair’ he wrote, ‘…There are some nice moments in Moiseiwitsch’s playing, poetical touches, but as a whole the interpretation is shallow. The cadenza of the first movement has what must surely be the worst run of wrong notes ever recorded. Sir Malcolm hardly begins to scratch the surface of the music…..The recording of this set is feeble and unlife-like’. Was Porter listening to the same recording? Moiseiwitsch plays the first movement cadenza by Carl Reinecke, and perhaps the passage Porter is referring to is the octave passage (beginning at 14’38”). Moiseiwitsch plays octaves in the way that Leschetizky taught him, with a completely loose wrist and relaxed shoulder which can lead to some upper notes not being struck cleanly. Film of Moiseiwitsch playing the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture for the BBC shows this octave technique perfectly. The complaint about the ‘feeble’ sound quality may have something to do with the fact that the performance was recorded onto tape by HMV, and the 78rpm discs were dubbed from that tape.

Later in that year of 1950, at the London Promenade Concerts, Myra Hess played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Moiseiwitsch played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, the Emperor Concerto, with Basil Cameron and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He had, however, recorded the work for HMV twelve years earlier in October 1938.

During June and July of 1938 Moiseiwitsch made a tour of Jamaica and South America. Returning to Britain, he gave three performances at the London Promenade Concerts with the conductor Henry Wood. On 11th August he played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (which had only been written four years before) and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat. On 3rd September he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44, and on 24th September Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, whilst October 1st and 16th saw him giving two broadcasts for the BBC, in one playing the 24 Preludes, Op. 28, of Chopin. On the afternoon of 20th October he gave a recital at Ryde on the Isle of Wight which included Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13, Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, Op. 13, some Chopin, Albéniz, and Liszt’s Feux Follets and the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli. The following day Moiseiwitsch was at the Kingsway Hall in London to record Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, the Emperor Concerto. The sessions went extremely well with first takes being approved for each of the ten sides except one. Three days later on 24th October, Moiseiwitsch performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, at the Queen’s Hall again with George Szell conducting. It is a pity that no recording of Moiseiwitsch in the Fourth Concerto of Beethoven exists. A contemporary reviewer of the recording of the Emperor wrote of ‘the natural ping of the particular technical method employed by this very efficient pianist, who is not my ideal as a Beethovenian…..There is in the first movement too little variety of tone levels: too much of the passage-work and connective tissue goes in a straight line. I find very little to stir me here’. True, Szell conducts in his usual fashion of the martinet, but the criticisms seem totally unfounded. It must be remembered that we are hearing these recordings in sound far superior to anything that would have been heard at the time. Moiseiwitsch, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, can easily rise above such pernickety criticism. The Emperor was the work he performed in London in March 1963 at his final public appearance, and in our era when we have the luxury of being able to hear both performances by such an artist, criticism seems unwarranted.

© 2004 Jonathan Summers

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