Before approaching what Ivan Moravec has to say in the Beethoven Fourth Cto., let me clear up some issues. I appreciate the almost delirious praise from the previous reviewers, and when I heard various defects, I doubted if we were on the same page. But the Gramophone reviewer from 1977, covering a reissue of the 1963 LP, also noted the foursquare conducting, recessive miking of the orchestra, and the generally lackluster performance of the Vienna Sym., which was no great shakes back then and probably barely rehearsed the music, given that the original label devoted to Moravec, Connoisseur Society, was a small and no doubt restricted outfit when it came to paying orchestras.
there are glaring defects in ensemble, such as the cello accompaniment at the beginning of the finale, which lags by half a beat at one point. The horns hang back to much in the first movement, and everyone plays it safe throughout. Turnovsky isn't competitive with any rival conductor of note, not even Alexander Schneider for Serkin on Sony, who wasn't a full-time conductor but an extremely talented violinist. In addition the recorded sound places us right under the lid of the piano, and since Moravec is shy of using the pedal, there are moments of uncomfortable ping in the upper registers.
As for Moravec himself, his devotees walk on air, as they have since he was a cult pianist in the Sixties. Even by 1977 the Gramophone noted that he was all but unknown in Britain. Of course, a coterie can be right in its enthusiasm, and I respect anyone who loves Moravec's touch, is purity of line, his assurance, and above all his individuality. for me, those virtues don't add up to something exceptional in this concerto. Moravec, like Rubinstein, is a touch pianist when it comes to Beethoven; Chopin's nuances are never far away. He can be mannered, to my ears, although not here. What strikes me is very beautiful, precise, somewhat detached playing that is refreshing but not, I think, equal to Serkin or Pletnev in this music. As a touchstone, listen to the finale, and you will hear a certain sameness in the way Moravec approaches episodes where the other two find more variety, contrast, and drama. Heard at his best moments, Moravec is a delight, yet too many drawbacks keep me from sounding completely enthusiastic. By the way, the shorter and rarer of Beethoven's first-movement cadenzas is played.
As for the rest of the program, I don't have the Op. 90 Sonata but only the great C minor Variations. Moravec begins by punching out the theme, at a quick pace, to rival Richter at his most impetuous. The headlong rush doesn't continue, but he constantly leans into the phrase, insuring maximum momentum at all times. It's a thrilling approach that elevates one of Beethoven's less-played works. Here I can appreciate the originality and charisma that Moravec's fans hear at all times. But with such dynamic expressions of personality in this work, their lack in the concerto stands out. Too bad that the piano sounds brittle and clangy by turns.