Twenty-three years ago, in annotating the first (and best) of Arthur Rubinstein's three recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, Irving Kolodin wrote that the work "was written for a 'dream' pianist, an unknown knight who would come into view as Lohengrin did for Elsa." The Wagnerian analogy might have been Siegfried instead of Logengrin, but the point was that this "Emperor" Concerto (so called only in English-speaking countries, by the way), Beethoven's last work in this form and the only one of his five mature solo piano concertos that he did not write for his own use, was created for a heroic breed of pianist such as had yet to appear in Beethoven's time.
The first such knight, it would appear, was the young Franz liszt, who performed the concerto in 1830, at the age of 18 (and, interestingly enough in the context of Kolodin's remark, conducted the premiere of Lohengrin at Weimar 20 years later). In the 150 years since there have been more than a few great performances of the work, and several memorable ones have been preserved in recordings, but I have heard none more convincing than the new one by Maurizio Pollini with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Boehm (Deutsche Grammophon 2531.194; cassette 3301.194).
Pollini's pianism is always a joy. In Chopin or Schoenberg, Bartok or Bethoven, the sound of the instrument under his fingers takes on both a brilliance and a solidity -- specially important qualities in this concerto -- which enhance any music. While his technical security allows him to concentrate his energies on problems of interpretation, he is consistently wary of over-interpreting. His interpretive "secret" seems to boil down to profound respect for what the composer has written, for clarifying the lines rather than adding any sort of interpretive overlay, and for getting the most brilliant and beautiful sound out of his instrument into the bargain.
But not even his superb recordings of the Third and Fourth concertos with the same companions could have prepared anyone for what Pollini achieves in the "Emperor." In addition to his unfailing elegance and sense of form, there is an incredibly fresh and compelling sense of momentum. Every bar seems to reveal some new beauty, but no fragment stands out in such a way as to disturb the flow, which seems at once so uncontrivedly majestic and so unself-consciously warmhearted. Boehm's rock-solid and superbly integrated orchestral contribution reminds us that Beethoven did not refer to the piano anywhere in the score of this uniquely symphonic concerto as a "solo" instrument. Lohengrin, Siegfried, or whatever, this really is a "dream" performance, and DG's rich, well-balanced sound is all one could ask in that department.
As frequently encountered as the "Emperor" Concerto is the symphony Beethoven wrote shortly after that work's premiere, the mighty Seventh. Back in 1927 Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded a powerhouse version of the Seventh which even Toscanini's famous New York Philharmonic version of 1936 did not put completely in the shade. Stokowski rerecorded the Seventh twice in stereo, and Quintessence has just reissued the earlier of those two recordings, made more than 20 years ago for United Artists with the Symphony of the Air (the remnant of the NBC Symphony Orchestra). Its sound is rather boomy on the bottom, a little shrill on top and cloudy in the middle, but this is in its way a remarkable performance, perhaps superior to the more richly recorded later version with the London Symphony Orchestra on London. Something to hear, anyway, if not necessarily to live with (PMC-7110; cassette P4C-7110).
Getting back to concertos, if away from Beethoven, Quintessence has also reissued Henryk Szeryng's magnificient performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Prokofiev's Second (G minor) with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the LSO (PMC-7150; cassette P4C-7150), a coupling available all too briefly on domestic Mercury in the sixties. I have never been able to understand Philip's reluctance to reinstate this gem on one of its own labels, but Quintessence has done a fine job of remastering, and at about half the price of Philip's cheapest series. Don't miss this one.