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Clifford Curzon(18th May 1907 ~ 1st Sep. 1982)

[ Stained-Glass of a tone ]

[ left photo ] Curzon at his young age ( from Philips Classics ; The 20th century pianists )

   I cannot have confidence with how well the art of piano playing is succeeded nowadays. I think its tradition is found more easily in the late pianists' records than the live concerts - surely Clifford Curzon is one of them, who is not as popular as Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, or Backhaus. Nowadays, what pianist can be endured by the contract company in case he does not approve to release his recording after all the session is finished so often except for him?

    Clifford Michael Curzon was born in London. He is a nephew of the composer Albert W. Ketelbey, who was famous by 'In a persian market'. He entered London Royal Academy at thirteen, learning Charles Reddie and Catherine Goodson. In 1923, Henry Wood(See footnote) regarded and selected him as a solist of Bach's concerto for 3 cembalo in Promenade Concert(his official début). He already got a position of the Royal Conservatory in 1926, but was very much impressed by Artur Schnabel, and learned piano at his classes in Berlin Conservatory from 1928 to 1930. Later he went to Paris, Wanda Landowska and Nadia Boulanger taught him. He returrned to England in 1932 as a full-time concert pianist, and his American début was 1939. When young there were 20th-century musics in his repertoire, but later he concentrated on German classical/romantic period, from Mozart to Brahms. Other romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Rachmaninov were not major concern. He began recording in 1941 by Decca, and remained exclusive artist of Decca to the early 1970s except some recordings by American Columbia(present Sony Classical) and EMI. In this period, he was undoubtedly one of the representative pianist of Decca along with Backhaus, Ashkenazy, Gulda, and Julius Katchen. His main stage was Europe, and recordings are mostly with European orchestras and ensembles, too. His studio recording activity was ended about 1972, after which he only remained the broadcast tapes(some by BBC records). He was honored by 'Sir', and died on 1st September 1982 in London.

   Curzon was far from the image of the brilliant virtuoso like Horowitz, but very highly acclaimed in the critics and represents at the top of Decca. Many fans recommend his Schubert sonata No.21 to know his music, in which his tone color is amazing. It provokes me that the stained glass of a church lighted by the sun. Unfortunately, he was as serious in recording as Rudolf Serkin, and perhaps the most serious at the point of release in the artists I have ever known. Ray Minshull, who was the chief of the classical music part of Decca from 1967 to 1994 after John Culshaw moved to BBC, wrote some behind stories with this artist, difficult to satisfy. Minshull was very much satisfied with the results of 1967 Mozart Concertos session with Kertész(Nos. 23,24,26 and 27), asking Curzon to finish the complete recording of the concertos. He was eager to do them because Curzon was for him also. But Curzon's nature hindered it, only Nos. 23/24 with Kertész and Nos. 20/27 with Britten were released. Curzon did never accept his concentration on work and the delicate frame, so did not like the recording team unfamiliar to him; his late Decca recordings are done with his favorable team - Minshull and the engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. Kirsten Flagstad admired the artist Curzon, and once visited him in studio. But she could not meet him. And - when Curzon was angry with hindrance of work, none was able to stop him.
   He never let his recordings open unless he thought it perfect. The Mozart's concerto recordings are the case of it. Nos. 23/27 with Szell/VPO is not released before the Original Masters Vol.I box as he thought it could not be released. Nos. 26/27 with Kertész/LSO was convicted to the same fate, so can come to light by only Philips pianist series plan(but can Decca open the recording banned by the player?) The famous record, Nos. 20/27 with Britten/ECO could not be released before 8 years have passed. The reason was that he did not signed OK because he realised he could gave other nuances in playing No.27. It took 8 years for him to change his minds to let it released under the condition that it had to be deleted from catalog when another recording was done. The live recording planned with Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw on 1984 was not realised due to his death.

   His Decca recordings are very precious to his fans and the first recommendations because he approved the release only if he was satisfied with the recorded performance. Therefore, I guess he should not like the recent broadcast issues. In other words, we had better choose Curzon's real interpretations in the Decca studio works. For recent several years, Decca alloted many of Classic Sound, Legend, Original Masters series to him, which has me happy as his recordings were not frequent in the record shops before these releases. [ Frankly speaking, I did not have many of his recordings before the issues because Korean LP release is not extensive for him ]
   By my discography(data from internet and my disques), he recorded about 40 works by 15 composers. In personal, I think his best recording is Schubert's sonata No.21(D.960). His tempo is somewhat fast, viewpoints are very consistent and persuasive, and tone color very transparent and beautiful. The next recommendation are ones with the members of Vienna Philharmonic(Vienna Octet and Vienna Philharmonic Quartet); Quintet by Dvorak, Schubert, and Franck. The strings' sound are soft and warm, harmonized to piano's beautiful and classical tendency. There is other recordings with Budapest SQ(American Columbia), and available now by Naxos historical outside USA. However, I prefer later Decca recordings. Dvorak/Schubert is issued by Classic Sound series(now in Original Masters box), which is too good record to miss as a chamber music fan. Brahms' concerto No.1 with Szell/London Symphony has to be recommended as the standard with those of Backhaus, Gilels, and Serkin.
   I prefer his romantic composers' recordings(Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt..) to Mozart's. The recent Legend release is very good - Schumann's Fantasy, Kinderszenen, Schubert 'Wanderer-Fantasie'. Schubert's sonata No.17(D.850) seems to have a problem of the condition of master tape, and 'Moment musicaux is too hard for my comfortable listening. Double Decca issue includes his concertos - Tchaikovsky No.1, Grieg, Rachmaninov No.2, and Brahms No.2(the later two are monaural) are high level and cheap, which shows his virtuosity in the romantic concertos(now released again by Original Masters box). It's very unhappy that Beethoven recordings are not frequent, moreover the stereo recordings are only Emperor with Knappertsbusch and Eroica variations. I think the latter is the better. Concerto No.4 with Knappertsbusch is released in Legend series(with Emperor, monaural), but not so impressive as the formers.

   Curzon resembles Edwin Fischer in some respects. Both of them were taught by more or less romantic teacher, but their pianism are near that of 20th century. [Interestingly, Curzon heard Furtwängler's concerts in Berlin and very much impressed with the overwhelming music. He remembered it vividly to much later. It's very interesting for me to consider his classical and more or less controlled music-making. ] The older, the more they were prone to the classical repertoire, very highly praised at concert though tortured by the stage fear, and (the most important one) they both remained records with the individual interpretations and tone color.

The Resources

Footnote ; Sir Henry Wood ]
famous conductor, remained many transcriptions for orchestra including 'Pictures at an exhibition'. He is the midwife of London Symphony Orchestra in spite of himself - He was very upset by the habitual deputy playing of English orchestras, therefore suggested the prohibition of it when he was in charge of the Queens Hall Orchestra. The reason was that the ensemble which the conductors had steadily constructed by many rehearsals was frequently collapsed at the stage performance by the deputy players not accustomed to the conductors. However, the members of the orchestra would not accept the suggestion and about a half of them left. They founded a new orchestra, which was named LSO. LSO's tradition is not to accept a long ruling under a conductor, which may stem from such a beginning, I guess.

(c) 2000~ , Youngrok LEE ; Link free, but please get my approval before you reuse, copy, or quote this materials.

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Created ; 15th Aug. 2001
(original Korean text created on 25th Oct. 2000)
Last update ; 29th Apr. 2006