The following is a review of the Bach Harpsichord Concerti recording, Malcolm, Stuttgart Chamber Orch, Munchinger, circa 1964 (source unknown).
At a time when so many Bach performances sound so drearily mechanical, and one begins to wonder whether one really loves or only reveres the greatest of all composers, this record comes as a salutary shock. It offers the unique experience of hearing the great D minor Harpsichord Concerto in a superlative performance by a virtuoso of the instrument for which it was written; and the effect is no less electrifying than that produced by a great piano virtuoso in the Tchaikovsky B flat minor— far more so, in fact, owing to the vastly superior quality of the music and its comparative unfamiliarity.
The concerto does quite simply need a harpsichord virtuoso to do any kind of justice to it. It is essentially a virtuoso work, and yet there is absolutely nothing in the keyboard part for a piano virtuoso, so different are the two instruments. Indeed, piano virtuosos rarely touch it; it is usually played by rather sober and solid pianists—. and mighty dull they usually make it sound. There can be no more clinching demonstration of the absolute rightness of the harpsichord for this work (and for Bach's other keyboard concertos) than the contrast between the impeccably correct piano performance of it which I reviewed last month and this inspired harpsichord performance by George Malcolm.
The regular repetitive rhythms, which plod so heavily on the piano, are lifted right off the ground by the percussive attack of the harpsichord, and can in consequence be infused with enormous dynamic tension. The broken arpeggios, which all sound so similar in the monochrome tone of the piano, become vividly contrasted on the different registers of the harpsichord, and can be further differentiated by the varied registrations— the cavernous rumbling of the sixteen-foot, the incisive ping of the normal eight-foot, the brittle tinkling of the four-foot, and the clattering brilliance of the full instrument. All these potentialities are used with superb skill and musical insight by George Malcolm, to build up performances of the two quick outer movements which are at once architecturally and emotionally thrilling; while in the central slow movement the long-spun melismatic line of the melody, which sounds so much more expressive on the harpsichord's eight-foot stop than in the wooden tone of piano cantabile, is given its true mood of passionate melancholy by means of an ultra-sensitive minimal rubato.
The orchestral contribution is fully worthy of the solo performance in its drive and precision, and in the beautiful way that Karl Miinchinger negotiates the handing over from harpsichord to orchestra and vice versa by means of subtle dynamic shadings. I feel that George Malcolm was most wise in shunning the fashionable practice of acting as conductor-soloist in the eighteenth-century way, which all too often distracts the soloist's concentration from his own task and also affects the ensemble adversely. What a work and what a performance! And what a recording too: both mono and stereo are just about as lifelike in clarity, tone and balance as can be imagined.
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"One of the real joys of the recorded music industry is that tracks which were laid down half a century ago can pop up just as fresh and bright as the day they were recorded. This is certainly true of these two piano trios recorded in 1976 and as delightful today as they were back in the 1970s. many thanks to First Hand Records for making them available again."
Lark Reviews 2019
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in E-flat major Op. 1 No. 1 (1793/94) [28:43]
Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1 No. 3 (1793/94) [27:57]
George Malcolm Piano Trio: Christopher Hirons (violin), Kenneth Heath (cello), George Malcolm (piano)
Rec. 17-18 September 1976, Bishopsgate Hall, London
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR96 [56:45]
This CD was first released as a stereo LP and that was on Crescent Records in 1977 (ARS 108). It is unique being the only recording from the George Malcolm Trio. The Trio lasted only three years before its cellist, Kenneth Heath, died. George Malcolm had a great reputation as a keyboard player but Beethoven is an aspect of his career that I hadn’t previously encountered. His main repertoire, like those of his two colleagues, was confined to the baroque, although he did sterling work on Mozart with András Schiff. The liner-notes refer to the LP’s original Gramophone review from 1977: “There cannot be a better Op. 1 by any composer, and the George Malcolm Piano Trio conveys the attractions of these two works with skill and intelligence ... You could not fail to enjoy this record”. This left me with high expectations even though reading the full article reveals that the reviewer had identified certain limitations.
Beethoven’s three piano trios are the finest Op. 1 that I’m aware of and over the past twenty or so years, I have got to know them through some of the great trios of the past. Inevitably that includes Du Pré, Barenboim and Zukerman, now on Warner, and the two sets by the Beaux Arts on Philips; there are many more.
In Piano Trio in E-flat major Op. 1 No. 1, the George Malcolm Trio give a performance both affectionate and charming which one would greatly enjoy on its own terms in concert. The work clearly owes something to both Haydn and Mozart but, even at this stage, is undeniably Beethovenian. It’s a piece that unveils new qualities on re-acquaintance. After a lively Allegro, Beethoven produces a delightful Andante Cantabile with the three players interjections conveying a sublime conversation. I find this aspect most alluring. Both the Scherzo and the youthfully invigorating Presto are very successful. The sound of the Trio is well captured and the sound wears its 40+ years well. On its own terms it’s a fine performance.
The Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1 No. 3 is one of my favourite pieces of chamber music and of Beethoven. As I mentioned in my review of the Gould Trio, Haydn, for reasons unclear, advised Beethoven not to publish the Trio. Fortunately, this advice was ignored. Beethoven, towards the end of his life, transcribed the work into a String Quintet Op. 104 as referred to in Vikram Seth’s interesting novel on a Quartet, “An Equal Music”. For those interested, there are fine recordings by the Suk Trio on Supraphon and by The Lindsays on ASV. When the Trio began I wasn’t sure whether the piano slightly dominated but I guess that, as Beethoven would have played in the first performance, this is appropriate. The key movement for me, is the Andante Cantabile second movement with its hymn-like theme and five variations, the third of which is pizzicato. There is some lovely languid interplay between the instruments and their ‘conversation’ is very much as an ensemble and as friends, not as three soloists brought together. The Prestissimo finale goes pretty vigorously. Certain notes aren’t 100% perfect but enthusiasm carries the day in the end.
These accomplished recordings have reappeared in splendid re-mastering and its been a pleasure to hear them. It’s certainly a side of George Malcolm of which I’d been unaware. His admirers, and those of Christopher Hirons and Kenneth Heath, will be pleased to have the opportunity to acquire these performances. There are excellent notes by an expert in this field Tully Potter with a couple of photos. I see that when the album was released in 1977, it cost £2.80, equivalent to £17.25 so its full price is, I suppose, acceptable, despite considerable competition. This is, after all, a one-off. It’s very good to see this byway in the careers of three distinguished musicians being unearthed.
David R Dunsmore - Musicweb International 2019
Coincidentally, just prior to hearing these two double-packs, I'd received a reissue from First Hand Records of the First and Third Trios featuring the George Malcolm Trio recorded in 1976, an immaculate production sound-wise, warmly and thoughtfully played and providing an ideal point of comparison with the Atos Trio.
Right from the opening bars of the First Trio, major differences are apparent, the lively Malcolm ensemble telling it as it is, the Atos bounding in on a spread chord, before embracing the opening Allegro with all manner of varied nuances. Note that I write "manner" and not "mannered", which they virtually never are, more proponents of conversational teamwork, with especially elegant piano-playing from Thomas Hoppe (Op 1 No 1's second movement is a good place to sample).
The witty finale is taken at a real lick yet never sounds rushed, whereas for the Third Trio's tense opening vibrato is all but suspended. The mood lightens for the lovely second subject but without a dip in tempo. Malcolm's trio are smilarly attentive if rather more urbane. The Atos are perhaps at their best in the Second (G major) Trio, the opening especially, while Hoppe's expressive phrasing at the start of the Largo con espressione slow movement is deeply affecting, as is the way the strings pick up the line after him. And how beautiful the mysterious second subject, which sounds like an ethereal message from beyond.
Rob Cowan - Gramophone 2020