CLIFFORD CURZON EDITION: COMPLETE RECORDINGS
Clifford Curzon (pn); various artists
DECCA 478 4389 (23 CDs: 1,607:05 and 1 DVD: 195:41)
In the 1940s and ’50s, when I was growing up to music in England, there were two homegrown pianists of consequence: Solomon and Curzon. Solomon, born in 1902, I thought of mostly as an exponent of Beethoven and Brahms—he taught me how to listen to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahms’s Second. Curzon, five years younger, was more commonly associated with Mozart and Schubert. I shall never forget the intense quietude he brought to a performance of Mozart’s last piano concerto at a Royal Festival Hall concert in January 1956, part of a week’s observances of the composer’s 200th birthday.
It is all too easy to forget about Clifford Curzon. So many great pianists have emerged since his day, and stamped their own imprint on the repertoire he excelled in. But that repertoire was actually much broader than one might think. Curzon’s recording of the Liszt Sonata, for instance, is quite possibly the finest interpretation of that work I have ever heard; and there is a passage a few minutes into the piece where—though I am at a loss to explain in words how this is done—he somehow demonstrates in the subtlest fashion that there is an important distinction between rallentando and ritenuto, the former being simply a slowing-down, the latter seeming to be literally–physically–“held back.”
Comprising Curzoniana of all kinds, including previously unpublished performances, interviews, and the pianist’s appearance on Roy Plomley’s wonderful old BBC program,
Desert Island Discs
(where Curzon surprised me by picking, as his final choice for his imagined island sojourn, the Flagstad/Furtwängler recording of Wagner’s
), this substantial boxed set is a magnificent reminder of the extraordinary artist he was. Photographs of Curzon seem to show him as a typically inoffensive English gentleman, and indeed the modesty and charm of the man were very evident on the occasions when I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with him backstage. Yet, alongside the prevailing gentleness of his touch, there is a positively startling vein of sheer steel running through his playing even in Schubert—the slow movement of the D-Major Sonata, D 850, is a case in point. And with all his fidelity to the canons of classical restraint, he offers some deliciously held-back waltz rhythms in the scherzo of that work.
Readers may often have been annoyed, as I have been, by collections of one or another musician’s work that choose a particular version of a piece in preference to another that we may have preferred. With the present collection, there is no such problem, for
seems to have been included. Thus it is possible, for example, to follow the pianist’s relationship with one of his favorite works, Mozart’s A-Major Concerto, K 488, at four distinct stages in his career: There is a 1945 recording with Boyd Neel and the National Symphony Orchestra, one from 1953 with Josef Krips and the London Symphony Orchestra, one from 1964 with George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic, and, finally, his 1967 version with István Kertész, again with the LSO.
As it happens, it is the continuity of his conception that strikes this listener more than any notable changes of approach—Curzon remained largely immune to some musicological developments of the time, resisting any temptation to add ornamentation to Mozart’s occasional wide melodic skips—but, inevitably, the feeling of his performance is affected each time by the personality of the conductor involved. I have to give George Szell, one of my unfavorite conductors, credit for the excellent balance he manages between the horns and the rest of the orchestra; yet there is a certain hectoring quality to his music-making that perhaps engenders a corresponding forcefulness in Curzon’s playing, but that is totally absent just three years later when the pianist is partnered by Kertész. And another three years on, in a Snape Maltings recording of the B♭-Major Concerto, K 595, it is clear that Curzon’s always highly personal conception of this work is powerfully enriched by the creative force of Benjamin Britten’s conducting. It is fascinating, again, to compare one of my favorite Curzon recordings, his gnarly, no-holds-barred 1953 Brahms First Concerto with Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with an earlier version from 1946 conducted by Enrique Jordá. There are also delights I have never previously encountered, including a treasurable 1952 Edinburgh performance of Brahms’s
graced by the participation of no lesser luminaries than Irmgard Seefried, Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzek, and Horst Günther.
A few of the early recordings, notably K 488 with Boyd Neel and a 1952 pairing of the two Mozart piano quartets with members of the Amadeus Quartet, suffer from backward balancing of the piano part, but these are rare exceptions. The set is accompanied by a booklet containing many photographs and well and sympathetically annotated by Callum Ross. There is also a DVD full of further illumination. Close-up views of Curzon in recital reveal the way, in a work like Schumann’s
his mouth constantly works as if he is indeed telling himself the stories encapsulated in the music; and his richly annotated scores of Schubert’s D 850 and D 960 sonatas can actually be followed along with his Snape performances of those works. Altogether, then, this ranks as one of the most intrinsically rewarding and expertly presented collections I have encountered. A place in the Classical Hall of Fame is no more than its due.