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Double double.

For this issue, Tom Lyle and I have decided to compare two recordings of two piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven, Nos. 3 and 4.. Both are lower-priced releases that feature big names. From Sony Classical, we have legendary pianist Leon Fleisher with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by the legendary George Szell back in 1959 and 1961 (Sony Classical 82876-78767-2), while on Arte Nova, we have pianist Yefim Bronfman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich under the baton of David Zinman (Arte Nova ANO 640100), recorded in 2004.

Following our usual practice, Tom and I have refrained from discussing these two recordings with each other and have done both our listening and our writing completely independently. Because this is an odd-numbered issue, I will lead off with my findings and then Tom will close with his perspective on these two recordings.

KWN: It always bugs Tom when I have little to say; this installment will make him go ballistic. All I can say is that these are both truly first-rate accounts of wonderful music, making it is difficult and probably pointless to choose between them. The Sony account is a bit more pointed and tart, the Arte Nova is a bit mellower in both performance and sound. I might lean slightly toward Bronfman in the Third and Fleisher in the Fourth, but not enough to make me choose one recording over the other. I have kept both and intend to keep both for a long, long time.

If I had to choose one to recommend over the other, it would be the Bronfman/Zinman on Pro Arte. Overall, its sound is better, and it is available for about half the price ($5 v. $10). But hey, the price of both combined is about the price of one full-price CD. Why not just get them both and have one you can loan to a friend (a nice alternative to digital piracy) from time to time? That way, everybody wins.

TL: These two CDs couldn't be more different. On the first CD you have two recordings, one made in 1959 and 1961 by a young Leon Fleisher and the esteemed George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra. The second, a recent recording by the Uzbekistan-born pianist Yefim Bronfman and the esteemed David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Fleisher's is an incredible reading - it sounds as if he is sticking to the score not only note for note, but as if the composer is looking over his shoulder explaining each and every score marking, each and every tempo indication, each and every dynamic symbol. It is very impressive. I didn't have a score in front of me while listening to the CD (my music reading skills are elementary at best, so it would hardly matter), but it seems as if Fleisher stuck to that score to the letter, and I mean that in the most positive way. Szell and the Clevelanders are his equal, and this adds to the sonic exactitude. But as could be expected, it leaves me a little cold. But I sort of like that.

Bronfman seems as if he is playing the score by heart--and from the heart. At times he seems to play behind the beat, that is, on tempo but very slightly delayed, when he wants to convey gloom. And he plays slightly in front of the beat when he wants to convey pleasure. And like my Fleisher comments, I mean these comments to infer only the best, in all possible ways. Plus, he comes of as the more aggressive of the two, coming down hard on the keys whenever he has the opportunity--and if you remember our Double Double when we did Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies (about two centuries ago) I love my Beethoven performed this way. I can't imagine that Beethoven intended it to be played any other way.

So it must sound as if I like them both. But what makes this Double Double easy is the difference in sound quality of these two CDs. As good as the Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland is, it sounds like this golden age of stereo recording was mastered in dark ages of digital, circa 1981. I know it wasn't, but it has a midrange glare that sounds as if it could peel the paint off my walls. Although the bass is strong and the treble is well extended, this treble is as grainy as sandpaper. This is a shame, because I might have spent more time listening to the budget Fleisher, and it might have grown on me. But it didn't stand a chance next to the super-budget Bronfman. The Bronfman/ Zinman/Tonhalle recording is an excellent modern digital recording, and can be compared to any full-priced orchestral CD being released today. That it costs so little makes it even more appealing.
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Title Annotation:THE MUSIC
Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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