CD of the Week – Clifford Curzon
Out of the London Blitz emerged two pianists of unusual sensitivity. Solomon, known by his first name alone, was possessed of powerful qualities of introspection. His playing was ended by a stroke in 1956, when he was 54 years old, and he is remembered by unsurpassed recordings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos.
Clifford Curzon, five years younger, wore a bespectacled, clerkish look that belied astonishing keyboard passion. Like Solomon, he is remembered for cornerstone recordings of the Grieg, but also of much else. Curzon was Decca’s number-one go-to pianist. A favourite of the irascible George Szell, he worked with maestros great and small, though his finest hours may well have been spent in chamber music.
Among 24 discs in this bumper compilation, concertos abound. There are two releases each of the Grieg and the Beethoven Emperor and three of the Brahms D minor – each different in its magisterial way. The deeper you dig, the bigger the surprises. There’s a stunning account of the second concerto by Alan Raswthorne, paired with Falla, Litolff and Franck, as well as a totally unexpected piano obbligato on the third symphony of the Dutch composer Willem Pijper, conducted by Eduard van Beinum.
Among the chamber music, a studio session with Vienna Philharmonic players on the Franck and Dvorak quintets is a delight from start to close, as are the two Mozart piano quartets that Curzon played with members of the Amadeus. His solo Schubert is in an ethereal space of its own. The box, a perfect browser, is a testament to an eternal artist and a test of the listener’s aptitude for the filigree distinctions of fine pianism.
Three French CD sets
Jean Francaix: Musique de Chamber
It’s the birth centenary of an archetype French composer, but the reassessment yields no fresh results. In these performances by Francaix and friends, what emerges is a beautiful civility and some delicious wind sounds, but nothing to frighten the horses. Octets, nonets, any combination of woodwinds and strings, lovely and ephemeral.
Debussy: Chamber music with wind instruments
The players are all French and the paying vivacious but too respectful for my taste. The piano version of the Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is typically anaemic.
Messiaen: Turangalila symphony
The most explosive account in years of Messiaen’s essay in sexual continence is performed by a Norwegian orchestra (Bergen) with a Spanish conductor (Juanjo Mena) and a British pianist and ondeist (Steven Osborne, Cynthia Millar). The pent-up energy is almost palpable, the playing superb and the sound quality (Andrew Keener/Simon Eadon) outstanding. Even a non-Messiaenist will be persuaded of this second coming.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.