This three-disc set of Arrau recordings provides a good snapshot of the pianist's early and middle career, a period when Arrau's playing was more overtly virtuosic and his interpretations somewhat less rhetorical. The program opens with Arrau's 1947 recording of the Brahms D minor concerto with Basil Cameron and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and while Arrau later disavowed it, calling it "awful" and "much too fast," I think it's terrific. Arrau's Brahms with Cameron is virile, dramatic and poetic, in fact, very much like his contemporary Rudolf Serkin's, whereas his subsequent recordings with Giulini (1961) and Haitink (1969) are marked by a slowing down, not by necessity, but because of his convictions about how the music should be played. Indeed, by the time of his 1969 recording with Haitink, Arrau's D minor concerto had expanded by over five minutes, and while time alone can be misleading, it does underline the thrust of Arrau's earlier conception. In 1947 there were none of the rhetorical hesitations, insertions and gloominess that came with Giulini and Haitink; nevertheless, Arrau's rejection of the Cameron recording was nearly total, saying "It's sort of exciting, no? In a way. In a superficial way. But the spiritual values of the D-minor Concerto are almost not there at all...." Arrau, who graciously declined to blame Basil Cameron, criticized himself for the results saying, "It might have been my fault. I started playing the two Brahms concertos relatively late. I never played them as a child; Martin Krause [Arrau's teacher] was against it. I think I must have started working on them only in my twenties" (from "Conversations with Arrau"). Still, Arrau was forty-four when this recording was made and it represents a valid statement from a fully mature artist - one which is vastly superior to his ultra-rhapsodic recordings with Giulini and Haitink.
The Mozart sonata (K570) that fills out the first disc shows Arrau to be a Mozart player of the first order. While he didn't play much Mozart after the mid-1950's, and hardly at all after the mid-1960's, his approach in this 1951 recording is youthful, direct and masculine, virtually identical in scope and approach to the outstanding Tanglewood recital reading from 1964 (Claudio Arrau Live at Tanglewood).
The all-Beethoven second disc opens with a 1951 recording of the op. 10, No 3 sonata, which Arrau long favored and made multiple recordings of, the earliest of which goes back to 1938 (Claudio Arrau in Germany: Pre-War Recordings). In that recording Arrau omits the first movement repeats, where he's also a little too athletic; however, the Largo, the high point of this early sonata, is already quite beautiful. The 1951 reading exceeds the earlier statement by a hair. The Moonlight sonata, recorded in 1950, is lovely, without a trace of excess sentimentality. Arrau segues into the Allegretto with barely a pause, and dispatches the rattling Presto with flair. Altogether a very impressive performance. The Beethoven disc closes with the quirky op. 31, no. 1 sonata, recorded in 1947, and while never high on my list of Beethoven's sonatas, it's nevertheless full of vitality.
The third disc includes an assortment of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Granados, with Chopin taking up the lion's share of the tracks. The Scherzos are excellent, especially the Third, which was recorded during the same 1939 session as the A flat Ballade, which is really exceptional. Both number among the finest extended Chopin works I've heard from Arrau, who in later years was not always the most convincing exponent of that composer's music. The Etudes are brilliantly played, but technical display was not Arrau's primary objective even in those days when it was already all about the music. And it's not surprising that the Debussy and Granados pieces included here are so successful - the many years Arrau spent in Germany could never erase the natural affinity he had for sensual music. The other miscellaneous pieces are very convincingly played, showing Arrau as a brilliant miniaturist. The closing track, Arrau's first recording of "Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este," shimmers with incandescent beauty, but its speed robs it of some of the spiritual element that makes the pianist's 1969 Philips recording so remarkable. Warner Classics would have been better off closing this set with Arrau's titanic 1935 recording of Rapsodie Espagnole, a true "schlager" and one of the greatest Liszt recordings ever made.
While Warner has named this set "Rarities," it should be pointed out that a good part of the material collected here has long been available on cd including on two early Arrau anthologies from Pearl (Piano Masters - Claudio Arrau: The Early Recordings and Claudio Arrau: 1928-1939 Recordings), as well as on Marston's compilation Claudio Arrau: The Early Years - Complete Pre-War Recordings, and on Urania's Piano Cto 1 Op 15. The sonics are for the most part reasonably good given the various recordings dates and venues spread across the three discs. The third disc is variable in that it includes some of Arrau's oldest recordings going back to the late 1920's, however, I do think that Pearl did a better job with their reproductions of the seven tracks that appear on both compilations. Unfortunately, the Brahms concerto was probably taken from a tired-out record as it suffers from background crackle and raw, screechy orchestral sound. While the piano is a tad bit brighter, overall it's no match for the velvety smooth sonics offered on Urania's release of this concerto which sounds as if it were recorded at least ten years later. The reproduction of the Mozart sonata and all of the Beethoven tracks is excellent. Although the liner notes mention tape "print through" on some of the Beethoven, I didn't notice any.