C1622. GEORGE SZELL Cond. Cleveland Orch., w.CLIFFORD CURZON: Piano Concerto #27 in B-flat, K.595 - Live Performance, 30 Nov., 1969; w.CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH: Piano Concerto #19 in F, K.459 - Live Performance, 16 Jan., 1969 (Eschenbach's American debut) (both Mozart, both Severance Hall); Eschenbach interview with Martin Perlich. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-545. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“In the sports world commentators will wryly speak of a player as not quite at the level for his sport’s Hall of Fame but not too far below. Such players would qualify for a Hall of the Very Good. It strikes me that what we have here is a Hall of Fame pianist and a Hall of the Very Good pianist. Of course, the comparison is inherently unfair: Clifford Curzon was at the very peak of his career at age 62, whereas Christoph Eschenbach was making his American debut in 1969 at the age of 28. But by placing the two pianists on the same disc with the same orchestra and conductor from the same year, St. Laurent Studio invites the comparison.
Clifford Curzon was one of the most highly regarded pianists of his era, and his playing of Mozart’s final concerto here is pure magic. In lyrical passages, particularly in the second movement, one could be listening to a great bel canto soprano. The relationship between Mozart’s piano concertos and his operatic writing was pointed out by the late Charles Rosen, and it seems central to the way Curzon plays. The vocal quality of the writing remained forefront in my mind as I listened to this performance. At the same time there is a spark and wit in the music’s more ebullient moments and a buoyancy to the rhythms. Curzon and Szell always brought out the best in each other (their classic Decca recording of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is a prime example). Szell found a warmer, lyrical side when accompanying Curzon, and Curzon’s rhythmic articulation became a bit firmer (though I would argue that it was the conductor who made the larger adjustment). This performance might appear superfluous, because there are multiple Curzon readings of Piano Concerto #27 available conducted by Adrian Boult, Benjamin Britten, Daniel Barenboim, Rafael Kubelik, and even an early Decca with Szell. I know most, but not all, of them. For vitality, concentration of energy, and beauty, I would rank this new account as highly as any.
The Szell/Eschenbach pairing is very fine also but not quite at the same level. Eschenbach seems a bit more studied, his forte a bit harsher, his line a touch less flowing. Heard on its own this would be counted as a lovely performance. Heard after Curzon’s it loses some of its luster. Although they are placed on the disc in the order of the headnote, I would recommend listening to them in reverse order so that you don’t immediately start comparing Eschenbach’s playing with Curzon’s. There is a great deal to recommend this performance, particularly the remarkable precision of intonation and ensemble from one of the world’s great orchestras. In both readings the wind soloists are outstanding.
The inclusion of a 10-minute interview by Martin Perlich of Eschenbach is a nice filler, but Perlich’s rather hesitant, jerky way of phrasing questions, and Eschenbach’s nervousness (this was, after all, his first appearance in America), make it something to be heard only once. The sound is spectacularly good for 1969 live performances, thanks to the original engineering of Cleveland radio station WCLV and St. Laurent Studio’s excellent transfer. St. Laurent Studio recordings are available at Norbeck, Peters & Ford (norpete.com).”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
"Sir Clifford Curzon, the world-renowned British pianist, was an immensely popular musical figure in Britain. Sir Clifford was knighted in 1977, recognition of a musical lifetime that made him, in the words of a tribute yesterday by the music critic of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH in London, 'the leading British pianist of his generation'. And as early as 1947, Noel Strauss of THE NEW YORK TIMES said that 'Curzon must be reckoned among the greatest keyboard artists of the time'.
Clifford Curzon made his debut in the United States with a recital at Town Hall in New York City on Feb. 26, 1939. THE NEW YORK TIMES critic said that the performance established the 31-year-old pianist as 'an artist of prime importance, a supreme colorist with an impeccable virtuoso technique'. On that same first tour, he played three concertos with the New York Philharmonic under Alexander Smallens at Carnegie Hall, and THE TIMES hailed Mr. Curzon for his 'superior musicianship, polished technique and sure grasp of style'.
One of Sir Clifford's last appearances in the United States was with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on May 2, 1978. Harold C. Schonberg, then chief music critic of THE NEW YORK TIMES, wrote of the pianist's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #24 in c minor: 'The performance had logic, strength and integrity. The strength was manifest not in outsized dynamics but in the way a phrase uncoiled, inevitably finding its way into the total structure of the piece. This kind of tensile strength, so necessary in Mozart, is the secret of only a few living musicians'.
Sir Clifford's repertory was both broad and eclectic. It included more than 50 concertos and ranged from early classics to contemporary works. While critics may have differed over his uniform command of this vast body of music, they generally agreed that few artists could match him in total performance and in the superbly high level of artistry he offered his listeners. Among his most enthusiastic American fans was Virgil Thomson, the composer and the longtime music critic of THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE. Mr. Thomson considered Mr. Curzon 'the most satisfactory interpreter' of the piano's Romantic repertory, and he once wrote that 'certainly no one brings to life Schubert and Schumann with quite the delicacy and the grandeur of Mr. Curzon'. And remarking on Mr. Curzon's performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell in February 1950, Mr. Thomson wrote that the pianist's 'tender grace and grand perspective of expression all made his rendering both a message and a monument'.
Olin Downs, the late music critic for THE NEW YORK TIMES, wrote many laudatory notices of Mr. Curzon's performances, but he summed up his appreciation of his artistry in a review of a recital featuring the works of Mozart, Schubert and Schumann in Town Hall in January 1950: 'He is indeed a musician among musicians, whose sense of style is partly the result of his exceptional knowledge of his art, but is more the result of that intuition which far surpasses in its penetrating truthfulness any book learning or wise exercises that a healthy mind needs'.
Mr. Curzon was born in London on May 18, 1907, the son of Michael Curzon, an antiques dealer, and the former Constance Young. Neither of them was a musician but both were music lovers and young Clifford began the serious study of the piano when he was 6 years old, after abandoning the violin. He chose the piano, he said later, 'because you can be alone with a piano'. The prodigiously talented student went on to train with Britain's leading teachers and later with the world's greatest masters, Artur Schnabel in Berlin and Wanda Landowska and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He entered the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of 12 and established himself as a star pupil by winning two scholarships and virtually all the prizes open to pianists. He made his first public appearance in London when he was 16, soon began teaching at the Royal Academy and was a full professor at 19. Mr. Curzon suspended his career as a concert artist in 1928 to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. While there, he met Lucille Wallace, a harpsichord student from Chicago. They were married in Paris in July 1931, and they often played duets and discussed the relative merits of the piano and the harpsichord in recital halls and on BBC programs. Mrs. Curzon died in 1977.
Mr. Curzon toured the Continent with leading European orchestras in the 1930s and appeared at many British music festivals. After his debut in Town Hall in 1939, Mr. Curzon returned to the United States in 1948 and performed here frequently until 1970, both in recitals and under such conductors as Bruno Walter, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy and Mr. Smallens."
- Walter H. Waggoner, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 Sept., 1982
"Christoph Eschenbach began studying piano at the age of eight, taught by his adoptive mother. She quickly realized his talents and enrolled him in the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik, where he studied both piano and conducting. As a boy he won First Prize in the 1952 Steinway Piano Competition, and in 1962 he took second prize in the Munich International competition; however, it was with his first prize at the Clara Haskil Competition in Montreux, France, in 1965, that he finally made his mark. This new notoriety led to a London concert debut in 1966, and a prestigious debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in 1969 [above]. Szell was impressed with his musicianship and gave him lessons in conducting, starting a close relationship that lasted until Szell's death in 1970.
Eschenbach was soon essaying a wide repertory in concert tours throughout Europe and America. Notable in his programs were a large number of works from 20th century composers, such as Bartok, Henze, Rihm, Reimann, Blacher, and Ruzicka; however, his performances of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were considered revelatory.
Eschenbach made his conducting debut in 1972 with a performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 3, soon followed by Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at Darmstadt in 1978. He was permanent guest conductor, then chief conductor, of the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra (1971-1985). In 1988 he began his most significant and productive association to date as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1999. Although the orchestra was already established as one of America's finer major symphonies, Eschenbach improved its standards, heightened its international reputation, and broadened its repertory. He also formed the Houston Symphony Chamber Players from its ranks. From 1991 to 1998 he was co-artistic director of the Pacific Music Festival, along with Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1994 Eschenbach was appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer outdoor season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the 1998-1999 season he became music director of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg, and, concurrently, artistic director of its Schleswig-Holstein Festival. In 2003, he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he continued to guest conduct from 2007-2010. Eschenbach spent the 2010-2011 season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.”
- Rovi, allmusic.com
"It must be remembered that when George Szell came to prominence in the United States in the mid 1940s (and his mid-forties) he was a highly respected conductor and musician in Europe. He had a very solid grip on his repertoire which soon expanded to new works which he was debuting and championing. However, all that most music lovers around the world today know about Szell's artistry they have divined from the recordings made by Columbia in Cleveland from the late 1940s on. In an interview with Szell as an intermission feature in one of the weekly broadcast concerts he stated that Columbia allowed him to record items that he requested only if they were not in conflict with Ormandy or Bernstein. Those he did make revealed meticulously prepared performances which could be misinterpreted as somewhat objective. The lean balances of those LPs and then CDs only reinforced that impression."
- Bruce Surtees