Clara Haskil / Herbert von Karajan

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Sonatas Nos. 18 & 32

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Some pianists from the middle years of the twentieth century could drop tons of notes and still remain faithful to the spirit of the music. Think of Edwin Fischer, who turned in a masterful account of Brahms' Second Concerto, though in some passages he missed as many notes as he hit. Or think of Alfred Cortot, who turned in a passionate reading of Chopin's Ballades though in the codas he missed more notes than he hit.

Clara Haskil was not one of those pianists. True, she had a terrible technique with slips, slides, and smudges galore, plus buckets of missed notes, wrong notes, and random notes, but except in a few lucky composers, Haskil was false to the spirit of the music she performed. Mozart was one of those lucky composers and Schumann was another, but Beethoven, unfortunately, was not. In this Urania disc coupling three performances from three different concerts given in the '50s, Haskil scrabbles and staggers through Beethoven as if she had never heard his music before.

Haskil was certainly familiar with the Fourth Piano Concerto -- there are both earlier and later recordings of her performing the work -- but in this 1952 recording with Herbert von Karajan leading the Wiener Symphoniker, she seems at a loss as to what to do with it. Not only is she not up to its technical demands, she is not up to its interpretive requirements. Haskil's cadenzas are studded with wrong notes and slammed chords, but her opening Allegro moderato lacks legato, her central Andante con moto lacks cogency, and her closing Rondo lacks all traces of joy. Nor does it help that Haskil's unscheduled tempo changes disrupt the flow of the music and makes it nearly impossible for Karajan and the Wiener Symphoniker to keep up with her.

The two remaining performances on the disc are equally poor. Haskil's Sonata in E flat major, Op. 31/No. 3, recorded live in Munich in 1952 is saturated with fumbles: trills that don't come off, phrases that don't cohere, lines that droop, and textures with the clarity of mud. It's as bad as her Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, recorded live at the 1953 Ludwigsburg Festival. Right from the Maestoso opening, Haskil is dropping notes and slamming chords, and she only gets worse when the music shifts gears into Allegro con brio. And though she does not actually lose her way, there are moments -- the start of the development and the start of the coda in particular -- where Haskil pauses long enough to make one wonder. Urania's sound is dark and cavernous.

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