There are three features of this album which make it must for any serious record collector. The first is that (to the best of my knowledge) this is the only concert stereo recording made by Piatigorsky. The second is that, as far as cellists go, he was one of the supreme masters of the century; and therefore any recorded performance by him is automatically a treasure worth having. - You will take note please, that I eschew the silly and insupportable claims so often found in these reviews that some musician and/or recording is "the greatest". I suppose those people have music barometers in their possession. But I've never seen one. Have you? So "one of the supreme ..." will do.
The third claim is that Piatigorsky commissioned the Walton Concerto. This means that he must have felt a special kind of proprietorship, since the composer naturally consulted him on the technical aspects of writing for the cello - read: for Piatigorsky's style of musicianship.
One aspect which depends on you, the listener, is that Piatigorsky was on the point of retiring when this recording was made. He had already curtailed his appearances considerably and did not practice as much, as cellists do who must perform in public week after week. This raises the possibility that his "hunger" for a perfect rendition might not have been as acute as perhaps 10 years earlier. But this does not explain his "technical deficiencies" which one reviewer castigated on this page. Rather it is explained by his refusal to cowtow to the demands of the studio for note perfect execution, which does not sit well with whatever the inspiration of the moment might have induced him to do.
Taking the Walton first: you will indeed find cellists with a more secure intonation. But this is to some extent putting the cart before the horse. Piatigorsky was interested in a sweet and creamy tone: you will find similar slightly "off centre" bowing in others of his recordings. You will find in some violinist's recordings e.g. Menuhin. To call this a fault is misunderstanding an essential criterion of his musicianship. Perfect intonation can (in the wrong hands) promote a cold, uninvolved relationship to the music, which is something that cellists of the older generation assiduously avoided (violinists too). I suggest that Piatigorsky still believed that there was a soul in music yearning to express itself; and now consider that any pressure on the strings increases the emotional intensity. You would have to be a cold fish to miss or criticise this. For example that warm and wonderful cantilena which opens the first movement would lose half its charm in dead centre execution. Piatigorsky really caresses the melody, where e.g. Tortelier seems to show an urge to get on with (moreover his oboist sounds sour, and that's not altogether pleasant). Or listen to the minicadenza at 5'18", what a deeply felt utterance and perfect preparation for the muted strings episode! It is true that in one or two spots in the fast middle movement, the soloist and ensemble are not perfectly together, but those are fleeting moments, of importance only if your intention is to put the reading down. I admit that I can conceive of better (read: more sensitive) accompanists than Munch.
The cellist is in solo territory for long stretches of the third movement, and here Piatigorsky really comes into his own, I feel. As far as eloquence and pure, unadulterated musical feeling is concerned, no-one can hold the candle to him here.
Altogether similar sentiments apply to the Dvorak work. With so many recordings around (I have 17 in my personal collection, but of course auditioned many more), hearing this version makes you painfully aware of how dispensable much of this pseudo-wealth actually is. Considering stereo only: once you've lived with Rostropovich, Fournier, Tortelier, Starker, du Pré and Rose, you will have come close to exhausting the possibilities for a deep and meaningful interpretation - other performances begin to sound like "readings" or introduce idiosyncrasies that outwear their welcome on second hearing. They have to struggle against this competition! This is when bored listeners begin to enthuse about sound, and I always ask myself when I see such comments: the sound of WHAT? Is it worth raving about when the sound is the major talking point?
This version by Piatigorsky is indispensable. It is a view from deep inside, by an artist who may have played this a hundred timers and more; and yet retains an unblocked perspective. Munch too seems much more "on the ball" here, and for once you get to hear the lovely woodwind melodies behind the cello and the chatty dialogue between oboes, flutes and cello that occurs on several occasions, you know that you're in the company of authentic music making. But what strikes me more than anything is the sense of creative purpose in this collaboration. The middle movement and the adagio section shortly before the end of the work often sound like episodes of sentimental drooling, but here they receive a manly yet affect-laden treatment that is utterly convincing -- because it comes from within and has the logic of the whole sweep of the work behind it. The "problems" mentioned above with cello tone recur; but here even more than in the Walton concerto they are an expressive necessity, by no means faults.
Altogether this is an album that demands insight and lots of musical sensitivity from a listener. You can't use this for wallpaper; it is too highly individualised. If you're one of those people who listen with the lights off and the doors closed, this is for you. Not perhaps as the only recording you'll ever need, but as one of perhaps four or five that convey the full splendour of one of the finest concerted woks in the whole repertoire.
Finally a word about the engineers. They did a really superb job. With all the hue and cry about re-mastering, we should remember that modern technology can't actually improve on the sound as recorded; and this album was done in 1957 and 1960. We can clean off the tape hiss and reinstate the dynamic range that was there in the first place, but had to be sacrificed to the exigencies of pressing this rich sound into an LP groove. So: hats off to the original engineers! They produced a superb, warm ambience, and analytical enough for us to her every section of the orchestra even during the heavy weather of Dvorak's score.