For years, I have been one who reveled in the outer movements of big romantic pieces – The dramatic, kinetic energy of big orchestras playing quickly.I think it has to do with the fact that I'm generally better able to grasp the structure of the fast movements, in part because the different themes are so well defined, and in part because they tend to be fairly standard in form. The fast movements are usually sonata form or rondo form.
While it happened some time ago, I distinctly remember a shift occurring when I started to get to know Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto – the Emperor concerto. It was one of the first pieces where I not only got a real sense of the structure of the slow movement (sonata form again) but I also felt like each instrument had a driving purpose and I could hear everything that Beethoven intended. I had a real connection with it and it still brings me near tears when I listen to it.
While not my absolute favorite piano concerto overall – although I'm not sure I'd be capable of identifying just one – the Emperor ranks right up there near the top. But the adagio – taken on its own – is easily my favorite slow movement from any concerto.
So I was over the moon to find this recording of Glenn Gould playing it with Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. Both legendary performers in their respective fields, this was a bit of a dream combo. True, there's always the chance that they might not have shared a vision for the piece, but I was happy to hear they lived up to their reputations.
The whole concerto is beautifully performed, but the slow movement is exquisite. It's taken at a much slower tempo than one usually hears it – which really gives the listener a chance to move in and around the different instrument parts. To feel how the flutes highlight the sigh-like end of the main theme, or how, in the recap, the piano just flat out interrupts the strings when they move too quickly towards the end of the theme, and passes it off to the winds – which enter with so much hesitancy – for a final restatment, with all others playing a simple supporting role.
It's played so tenderly, so clearly, and so eloquently – I can't imagine a better performance. The Emperor certainly helped me to better embrace slower movements because of it's clear structure. If other slow movements were played with the clarity and sincerity shown in this performance, I'm sure my preference for fast movments would be at risk.