Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic
Add utterly tight rhythms to absolutely crisp articulation in woodwinds, brass, and strings—even at furious tempos—for a thrilling ride. But with Ancerl’s nuanced expression and engineering that projects each section of the orchestra clearly, you get far more than mere pops entertainment here.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Leon Fleisher; George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra
Murray Perahia; Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
If you like Beethoven with muscle and even some fury, Fleisher and Szell deliver it in the first and third movements with plenty of style and nuance. In the middle movement they’re utterly serene, with more depth, breadth, and nuance than Perahia and Haitink. They also have more personality from start to finish. While the engineering is balanced and full from treble to bass, what it doesn’t have is the transparency of the Dutch album.
That transparency makes Perahia’s inner lines and especially his bass line special delights; it also allows every single tone color and harmonic shift in Haitink’s superbly balanced orchestra to have their effect of moving the music forward. The playing is gorgeous and the rhythms buoyant. But compared to Fleisher and Szell, theirs is not a dramatic approach. For example, Perahia takes the same highly dramatic first movement cadenza as Fleisher, but his mannerly style makes it feel out of context and too long. Nonetheless, if you want to really hear everything that Beethoven wrote, this is the recording—and a gorgeous one it is.
WebTips: Both performances are available on single CDs and as part of sets of Beethoven’s complete Piano Concertos. (The Perahia single is a steal on Amazon.)
Elgar: Symphony No. 1
Georg Solti, London Philharmonic
“It’s liftoff!” Here all at once are terrific energy, upturned lyricism, and an adventurous sense of going somewhere—precisely what big-souled Elgar was all about! And precisely what’s needed to get most listeners through what otherwise can be a slog of a symphony. And it’s all done with enough “nobilmente” (Elgar’s own term) to make even the most Edwardian Englishman wax nostalgic. The second movement will leave you both breathless and humming, the third is transcendental ecstasy, and the fourth incredible excitement with soul. And wait till you get to the grand coda! It doesn’t come any grander than this.
WebTips: Forget about the single CD with the Cockaigne Overture. Go for the 2-CD “Double Decca” album that also contains Solti’s equally stunning recordings of Symphony No. 2 and In the South, available on Amazon for a steal.