Telarc originally released this album in 1981, and at the time I remember their sending me an LP of it to review. I’m afraid that for one reason or another, it initially didn’t impress me much. It seemed to me back then that both the performance and the recording needed more weight. That turned out to be an unfortunate judgment because I shortly came to like the LP very much. That’s why I find this remastering by LIM (Lasting Impression Music), an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music), so remarkable. After all these years, it seems like an entirely new recording, both sonically and interpretively. Part of my new appreciation stems from LIM’s extravagant Ultra High Definition 32-bit processing, of course, and part of it is that I probably never gave the recording its proper due in the first place. In any event, listening again after all these years, I found it a complete delight.
German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, “Emperor,” in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would be Beethoven’s final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man’s most-popular pieces of music.
Any rendition must offer a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, with its long, grand introduction, which Serkin provides, the pianist adopting a moderate, never breathless pace, and Ozawa giving him the chance to create a most-heroic solo contribution. It’s a nuanced performance from Serkin, yet each facet of it works, from the softest passages to the most ardent segments. Beethoven intended the opening movement to be monumental, and Serkin and the orchestra respond to it accordingly. The players perform their duties in exemplary fashion, with no lack of power, passion, grandeur, or insight.
In the central Adagio, we get one of the loveliest melodies Beethoven (or anyone else) ever wrote, a brief duet between piano and orchestra, and Serkin handles it almost as tenderly as anyone. True, Serkin hasn’t quite the poetic bent of Wilhelm Kempff, with Serkin seeming a tad more mechanical and matter-of-fact by comparison. Still, it’s so close, I wouldn’t quibble.
With Serkin, the hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro registers a distinctive character and takes the concerto on to glowing heights, Serkin playing in fine, melodic style driving toward a wonderfully refined yet exuberant conclusion. Serkin may have been up in years when he made this Telarc recording (he was close to eighty at the time), but he doesn’t show it. Of his several recordings of the Fifth Concerto, this one from Telarc is surely his finest, most glowing, most magisterial, most self assured, most exultant rendering of them all.
In terms of ranking the great recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, one must place Serkin among the very best, alongside Kovacevich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Kempff, Brendel, Pollini, Fleisher, Gieseking, Horowitz, Curzon, Rubinstein, Gilels, Cliburn, Perahia, and a very few select others. It’s that good.
The audio, which Telarc recorded digitally in 1981 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and which LIM remastered in 2011 and released in 2012, is big and bold to match the performance. LIM’s 32-bit Ultra High Definition processing results in a beautifully natural piano sound and a dynamic orchestral support, making an almost ideal combination of instrumental sonics. We also hear a touch of ambient hall bloom, helping the piano appear rich and resonant, and there’s good clarity throughout without being in any way bright, hard, or edgy. In short, this LIM product is the best-sounding Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto I have ever heard, and a brief comparison to over half a dozen other recordings of the piece I had on hand confirmed this impression.
Considering, too, its attractive, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet, and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is something of an audiophile’s dream. Just don’t expect it to come cheap. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.