Album Title: Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto (Concerto No. 5)
Performers: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Knappertsbusch
Label and #: Speakers Corner Decca SXL 2002
Recorded: June 1957, Sofiensaal, Vienna

I wonder who decided to hand Knappertsbusch the baton for this recording of Beethoven's last piano concerto with Clifford Curzon. His uninspired direction taints a performance that could otherwise have been an enlightening recording of Ludwig's 1809 testament to the genre. Beethoven's Fifth is filled with optimism and bravery, composed when Napoleon loomed large at the doors of Vienna. But don't look for these potent sentiments in Knappertsbusch's direction of a tired and unenthusiastic Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Knappertsbusch was known for his live operatic performances and his absolute aversion for studio recordings. Well, here it shows. He leaves Curzon alone with the mission to make this an interesting performance and the British pianist actually manages more than once to pull the whole together thanks to his original rhythmic contrasts in the first and third movement.

As is often the case, the introspective and intellectual Curzon is at his best in the slow movement and the "Adagio un poco moto" gives him fantastic material to express his lyrical talent but there again the emotional support from the orchestra is pretty close to non-existent.

Despite the great re-mastering job by Speakers Corner, this recording does show some of its age, with the lower register of the piano sounding dulled and the strings a bit more strident than desirable. The fact that this recording, one of the very first stereo recordings ever made, still sounds this credible is fantastic testimony to the quality of the original take. While the sound quality can't quite compare to recordings made a decade later, it is far better than anybody should reasonably expect.

So recommended with reserves, first and foremost for Curzon and his magic touch, for the testimony this disc represents and for the collector in you. Still, it's probably not my first choice when it comes to the most endearing versions of this concerto. There are too many others to choose from, starting with Arrau / Davis, Brendel / Levine or my favorite of all times, the Serkin and Bernstein triumph...