Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” (UltraHD CD)

Rudolf Serkin,
piano; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. LIM UHD 053.

Telarc originally released this album in 1981, and at the
time I remember their sending me an LP of it to review. I’m afraid that for one
reason or another, it initially didn’t impress me much. It seemed to me back
then that both the performance and the recording needed more weight. That
turned out to be an unfortunate judgment because I shortly came to like the LP
very much. That’s why I find this remastering by LIM (Lasting Impression
Music), an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music), so remarkable.
After all these years, it seems like an entirely new recording, both sonically
and interpretively. Part of my new appreciation stems from LIM’s extravagant
Ultra High Definition 32-bit processing, of course, and part of it is that I
probably never gave the recording its proper due in the first place. In any
event, listening again after all these years, I found it a complete delight.

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op.
73, “Emperor,” in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke
Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would be Beethoven’s final piano
concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man’s most-popular pieces of

Any rendition must offer a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, with its long, grand
introduction, which Serkin provides, the pianist adopting a moderate, never
breathless pace, and Ozawa giving him the chance to create a most-heroic solo
contribution. It’s a nuanced performance from Serkin, yet each facet of it
works, from the softest passages to the most ardent segments. Beethoven
intended the opening movement to be monumental, and Serkin and the orchestra
respond to it accordingly. The players perform their duties in exemplary
fashion, with no lack of power, passion, grandeur, or insight.

In the central Adagio,
we get one of the loveliest melodies Beethoven (or anyone else) ever wrote, a
brief duet between piano and orchestra, and Serkin handles it almost as
tenderly as anyone. True, Serkin hasn’t quite the poetic bent of Wilhelm
Kempff, with Serkin seeming a tad more mechanical and matter-of-fact by
comparison. Still, it’s so close, I wouldn’t quibble. 

With Serkin, the hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro registers a distinctive
character and takes the concerto on to glowing heights, Serkin playing in fine,
melodic style driving toward a wonderfully refined yet exuberant conclusion.
Serkin may have been up in years when he made this Telarc recording (he was
close to eighty at the time), but he doesn’t show it. Of his several recordings
of the Fifth Concerto, this one from
Telarc is surely his finest, most glowing, most magisterial, most self assured,
most exultant rendering of them all.

In terms of ranking the great recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, one must place Serkin
among the very best, alongside Kovacevich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Kempff, Brendel,
Pollini, Fleisher, Gieseking, Horowitz, Curzon, Rubinstein, Gilels, Cliburn,
Perahia, and a very few select others. It’s that good. 

The audio, which Telarc recorded digitally in 1981 at
Symphony Hall, Boston, and which LIM remastered in 2011 and released in 2012,
is big and bold to match the performance. LIM’s 32-bit Ultra High Definition
processing results in a beautifully natural piano sound and a dynamic
orchestral support, making an almost ideal combination of instrumental sonics.
We also hear a touch of ambient hall bloom, helping the piano appear rich and
resonant, and there’s good clarity throughout without being in any way bright,
hard, or edgy. In short, this LIM product is the best-sounding Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto I have ever heard,
and a brief comparison to over half a dozen other recordings of the piece I had
on hand confirmed this impression.

Considering, too,
its attractive, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet,
and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is something of an
audiophile’s dream. Just don’t expect it to come cheap. For a complete listing
of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at


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