Anyone seeking a ‘go-to’ classic on Claudio Arrau: The Complete Warner Classics Recordings, 0190296245572, 24 CDs, c£73.00 need go no further than disc 10, a 1956-7 Schubert coupling, one half devoted to the disquieting ‘three Klavierstücke’ – the first of which flies off at a frighteningly fast pace – and the Wanderer Fantasy, a notoriously difficult work to bring off that Arrau interprets on the grandest scale possible. Of cause ‘grandeur’ was this Chilean virtuoso’s calling card. He was celebrated for a big, imposing tone with an intellect to match. He didn’t so much play as demonstrate, laying a composer’s cards on the table for all to see, to weigh up, to ponder and absorb, a facilitator less concerned with the niceties of pianistic colour than with the truths that lay behind the notes. That said, a 1939 recording of Schumann’s kaleidoscopic suite Carnaval (Disc 2) courts fantasy as vividly as did Cortot or Rachmaninov. His Chopin combines poetic sensibilities with a feeling for scale. In the Third Sonata from 1960 (Disc 21) he plays the long first movement exposition repeat – something that was virtually unheard of at the time – and come the close of an extremely brilliant scherzo launches into the largo without a break, something he also does on an SWR recital from the same year (SWR19054CD), so don’t suspect an editing glitch.
Needless to say Beethoven, an Arrau speciality, is generously represented, most notably with the last three sonatas, (Disc 14), Op. 111 arresting attention from the very first chords, a taut, powerfully voiced reading where the ‘arietta with variations’ second movement journeys from expertly placed chords at the beginning, through prophesies of ragtime to a sublime close. The Concertos, all with the Philharmonia, are represented complete under Alceo Galliera in stereo, confident readings that tell it as it is, and live mono recordings of Concertos Nos. 3-5 under Otto Klemperer, where the conductor’s imposing presence elevates the experience onto an altogether higher plane. Arrau considered Klemperer’s accompaniment for the ‘Emperor’ to be ‘perhaps the finest he had ever experienced …’. The forceful ‘rum-ta-tum’ at 10:51 into the first movement is a stronger, more imperious call to arms than on the sonically superior stereo studio recording under Galliera from a year later.
Two versions of Brahms’s First Concerto, both again with the Philharmonia, provide equally interesting points of comparison. The earliest, from 1947 (Disc 3) under Basil Cameron, is assertive and straight-backed whereas turn to the 1960 stereo remake under Carlo Maria Giulini (Disc 23) and the wheels are well-oiled, the manner more flexible and the overall impression, a meaningful partnership plumbing the depths. We’re also given a glitz-free Tchaikovsky B flat, tellingly considered versions of the Grieg and Schumann Concertos (the more lyrical sections of the Grieg’s first movement are especially lovely) and various other works. But perhaps the set’s most interesting disc, collector-wise, is the first, which opens, somewhat depressingly, with a nondescript 1921 version of Chopin’s F major Op. 34 No. 1. Turn then to track 4 and Arrau in 1928 is a quite different animal in the same piece: playful, impulsive and imaginative. Thereafter we hear him in Busoni’s ‘Chamber Fantasy on ‘Carmen’’, music by Liszt and Chopin and – this is the real prize – extracts from piano trios by Beethoven and Schubert with violinist Andreas Weissgerber and his cellist brother Joseph (both were destined to join the Palestine Orchestra, later the Israel Philharmonic). Apparently, although uncredited on the discs, Arrau was the trio’s pianist, although the Polish pianist Karol Szreter – whose playing is very similar to what we actually hear on CD 1 – is an equally likely contender.
Claudio Arrau wasn’t always the most inspired pianist on disc. Some of his Philips/Decca recordings are rather dull but these Warner Classics recordings are among his best and viewed as a whole this well produced set, which has been superbly transferred from analogue sources and is significantly enhanced by Jonathan Summers’s excellent annotations, is much to be recommended.