Claudio Arrau (piano)
The Complete Warner Classics Recordings
rec. 1921-1962
Mono and stereo
Warner Classics 9029624557 [24 CDs]

With a career that spanned eight decades, and a substantial discography that ranged from the early acoustics to the digital era, Claudio Arrau (1903-91) is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. His repertoire was vast, encompassing music from the baroque era to that of the 20th-century, yet it is in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms that he is best known. His playing was noted for being aristocratic, authoritative and poetic.

The recordings in this 24 CD set are set out chronologically with an acoustic recording from 1921 to the final stereo recording taped in April 1962. The first five discs, which take us up until 1951, have plain beige card sleeves, whilst the remainder are housed in original jackets. The tracklistings and timings are on the reverse of each sleeve and not in the booklet, which contains an alphabetical index of the music with a CD reference number. The earlier recordings are in mono, whilst the latter six or seven discs are stereo. All is presented in a sturdy cardboard box. I shall discuss some of the highlights of the collection to give you a flavor.

Arrau recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos in stereo between 1954 and 1958 with the Philharmonia directed by the Italian conductor Alceo Galliera. It was a time when the composer was central to his repertoire. He would subsequently record two further complete cycles with Haitink and the Concertgebouw in 1964 and Collin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden in the mid-1980s. I find more freshness and spontaneity in the earlier cycle with Galliera than with the later traversals, which have a little more gravitas. In 1957 Walter Legge, producer and artistic director of the Philharmonia, oversaw a Beethoven Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Otto Klemperer conducted all of the symphonies, the piano concertos and the violin concerto. A certain Dr Schuler taped the live radio broadcasts of the final three piano concertos. They have previously been issued on the Testament label, which is where I first encountered them. Both conductor and soloist are on terrific form and the sound quality is good. The pianist later reflected that Klemperer’s accompaniment for the ‘Emperor’ was “perhaps the finest he had ever experienced …’”.

There are a selection of twelve Beethoven piano sonatas, the majority in mono apart from Op. 10, No. 3, Op. 54 and Op. 57 ‘Appassionata‘. This latter performance is outstanding in every way, with the outer movements played with great authority and craggy grandeur. The last three sonatas were set down in Abbey Road, London in 1957. Arrau’s performances are distinctive and penetrating. His intellectual grasp of the structure and architecture of the works makes these readings compelling.

Arrau’s teacher Martin Krause didn’t encourage him to study the Brahms’ concertos, and the pianist was well into his twenties when he first visited them. There’s an early recording of the First Concerto from 1947, in which the pianist is partnered by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Basil Cameron. Arrau disavowed this recording, considering it not only too fast, but metronomic and superficial. I like it very much, and find it distinctive, with a detectable sympathy between conductor and soloist. In 1960 the pianist recorded both Brahms Concertos, again with the Philharmonia, this time under Carlo Maria Giulini. These are also included in the set. Both concertos are masterful accounts with a comfortable blend of drama and poetic lyricism. Guilini is a wonderfully inspiring conductor, and beautifully sculpts the orchestral parts with nobility and largesse. Pacing is ideal. Some may prefer the broader tempi of Arrau’s later inscriptions with Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra set down nine years later in 1969. These are more expansive realizations in better sound but, for my money, I’d opt for the Guilini recordings any day, as I find them more vital and engaging.

Although the pianist set down several Chopin études in the late 1920’s, his complete cycle of both sets appear only once in his discography, that is in 1956. The high regard they’ve been held is proven by their release as a GROC in 2007. They’re projected with muscularity, brilliance of attack and excitement. Everything is dispatched with the upmost skill. Most appealing is that he plumbs the emotional depth of such études as Op.10, No. 3 and No. 6 and Op. 25, No. 7. The other work which appeared only once in his discography is the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. It’s an intelligently structured performance marrying virtuosity with lyrical intensity.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 features twice in Arrau’s commercial discography. The one in this set was recorded in London in 1960 with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. There’s a later one from April 1979 with Sir Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This latter recording I’ve never heard, so can’t offer any comparisons. The performance with Gallieria is nicely paced throughout, with the opening movement having an impressive overall sweep. There are some breathtaking moments in the slow movement, with Galliera pointing up the rich woodwind writing to effect. The Grieg and Schumann Concertos were made with the same forces in 1957. I totally agree with Jonathan Woolf who reviewed this pairing when it appeared in the Arrau Icon box (review), commenting that he found the Schumann “a little dour overall”. It is a little straight-laced and serious for my taste. Likewise with the Grieg, Mr. Woolf found that the pianist pulled it around too much. It certainly wouldn’t be my ‘go to’ recording for this work.

This new release has 24 CDs, with the Icon box having only 12. Having said that, the Icon’s discs are more generously filled. The Complete Warner Recordings has several discs of early inscriptions not present in the Icon box. Also, the Beethoven/Arrau/Klemperer live collaborations are only present in this recent incarnation. As I said earlier, these three concerto performances were issued by Testament some years ago. In my humble opinion, if you have the Icon box I don’t think it’s worthwhile investing in this newly issued set, unless your an ardent Arrau fan, but that’s just a personal view.

The sound restorations and remasterings for this new edition come courtesy of Christophe Hénault of Studio Art & Son, Annecy, utilizing the best available sources for the 78-era recordings and the original tapes for those from the age of LP. I did a random selection of comparisons between the recordings here and those in the Icon box, and concluded that the new remasterings iron out some of the audio roughness, making them sound much smoother and preferable. The booklet in my review copy is an absolute disaster. There are several pages missing and several duplicated. Maybe mine was a one-off.

Stephen Greenbank

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Beethoven, Ludwig van
Piano Concertos nos 1-5 (complete)
Piano Sonata no.7 in D major, op.10 no.3
Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor, op.27 no.2 ‘Moonlight’
Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major, op.31 no.3 ‘The Hunt’
Piano Sonata no.21 in C major, op.53 ‘Waldstein’
Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57 ‘Appassionata’
Piano Sonata no.24 in F sharp major, op.78 ‘A Therese’
Piano Sonata no.26 in E flat major, op.81a ‘Les Adieux’
Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101
Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Piano Sonata no.31 in A flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111
Piano Trio no.4 in B flat major, op.11 ‘Gassenhauer’ (with violin)
» II Adagio
» III Tema con variazioni
Variations (32) on an original theme, WoO80
Brahms, Johannes
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major, op.83
Busoni, Ferruccio
Sonatina no.6 super Carmen ‘Kammerfantasie’, BV284
Chopin, Frederic
Allegro de concert in A major, op.46
Ballades (4)
» no.3 in A flat major, op.47
Etudes (12), op.10
Etudes (12), op.25
Etudes, Nouvelles (3)
Fantasy in F minor, op.49
Piano Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Polish Songs (17), op.74
» no.12 My darling
Preludes (24), op.28
» no.23 in F major
Scherzi (4)
» no.3 in C sharp minor, op.39
» no.4 in E major, op.54
Tarentelle in A flat major, op.43
Waltzes (19)
» no.4 in F major, op.34 no.3
Debussy, Claude
Danse ‘Tarantelle styrienne’, L69
Estampes (3)
» no.3 Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain)
Preludes (12), Book 2
» no.3 La puerta del vino
Granados, Enrique
Goyescas, op.11
» Quejas o la maja y el ruisenor
Grieg, Edvard
Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16
Liszt, Franz
Annees de Pelerinage, 1st Year ‘Suisse’, S160
» no.4 Au bord d’une source
Annees de Pelerinage, 3rd Year, S163
» no.4 Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este
Lieder (12) von Franz Schubert, S558
» no.9 Standchen von Shakespeare
Rhapsodie espagnole, S254
Valse melancolique, S210
Valses oubliees (4), S215
» no.1 in F sharp major
Mendelssohn, Felix
Rondo capriccioso in E major, op.14
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Piano Sonata no.17 in B flat major, K570
Schubert, Franz
Allegretto in C minor, D915
Fantasie in C major, D760 ‘Wanderer’
Klavierstucke (3), D946
March in E major, D606
Moments musicaux (6), op.94 D780
Piano Trio no.1 in B flat major, op.99 D898
» III Scherzo
Piano Trio no.2 in E flat major, op.100 D929
» III Scherzando
Schumann, Robert
Carnaval, op.9
Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich
Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor, op.23
Weber, Carl Maria von
Konzertstuck in F minor, op.79 J282

Participating artists:
Andreas Weissgerber (violin)
Joseph Weissgerber (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra

Participating conductors:
Basil Cameron
Alceo Galliera
Carlo Maria Giulini
Otto Klemperer