Brahms's piano concertos
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15 (1854-58)
This passionate and turbulent work, one of the cornerstones of the concert repertoire, was hissed at its premiere and did not become popular until the 1950s. The romantic second subject of the first movement was used in the film The L-shaped Room. The second movement, which was written in memory of his friend Robert Schumann, is a moving elegy, while the finale, a rondo modelled on Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, provides a spirited contrast.
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 83 (1878-81)
One of the longest (about 45 minutes), most physically taxing of all piano concertos, more reflective than the youthful First Concerto but with passages of surging power; the solo cello, unusually, introduces the main theme of the beautiful third movement also used in Brahms's song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer. Equally unusual, the concerto is cast in four movements.
Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Nelson Freire (pf) Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig / Riccardo Chailly
Decca 475 7637DX2 (95’ · DDD) Recorded live. Gramophone Recording of the Year 2007. Buy from Amazon
This is the Brahms piano concerto set we’ve been waiting for. Nelson Freire and Riccardo Chailly offer interpretations that triumphantly fuse immediacy and insight, power and lyricism, and incandescent virtuosity that leaves few details unturned, yet always with the big picture in clear sight. The D minor No 1’s headlong opening tutti updates Szell/Cleveland’s patented fire and brimstone with a warmth of tone that manages to convey both line and mass as few others do. Timpani and brass proudly step up to the fore in both concertos, while frequently buried lines emerge from the gnarly textures with uncommon clarity and specificity. In Chailly’s hands, a genuine chamber music aesthetic consistently governs the lustrous warmth of Brahms’s underrated orchestrations, to say nothing of the heights to which the conductor has led his revitalised Leipzig Gewandhaus ensemble.
Balanced within the orchestra as an equal partner, Freire is completely on top of and inside both works’ solo parts, from No 1’s fervent yet cogently shaped octave outbursts and the B flat’s graceful, light-footed finale to both slow movements’ unforced simplicity, organic flow, and freedom from sentimentality. No doubt that the presence of an audience fuels the palpable give and take between soloist and conductor. Just as the Szell/Cleveland cycles with Serkin and Fleisher, and Gilels/Jochum (reviewed below) were benchmarks in their day, these gorgeously engineered, stunningly executed and temperamentally generous performances will stand as points of reference for generations to come.
Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2*. Seven Piano Pieces, Op 116
Emil Gilels (pf) *Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Eugen Jochum
DG The Originals 447 446-2GOR2 (125‘ · ADD) Recorded 1972-5. Buy from Amazon
The booklet-notes make reference to the original Gramophone review, in which Gilels and Jochum were praised for ‘a rapt songfulness that in no way detracts from Brahms’s heroism, and so comes closer to that unique and complex combination of attitudes that for me is Brahms more than any other performances of these concertos I have ever heard, on records or otherwise’. It might be added that Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic make plain sailing where others struggle with choppy cross-currents (admittedly sometimes to Brahms’s advantage) and that the recordings don’t sound their age. Other interpreters have perhaps probed a little deeper here and there; neither concerto rests content with a single interpretation, the Second especially. As for the Seven Piano Pieces, Gilels viewed the opus as a single piece, a musical novella in several chapters.
Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2*. Four Ballades, Op 10. Scherzo, Op 4. Eight Pieces, Op 76
Stephen Kovacevich (pf) *London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis
Newton Classics 8802010 (148’ · *ADD/DDD). Recorded 1979 & 1983. Buy from Amazon
This superb reissue is a timely reminder of Stephen Kovacevich’s stature as one of the great musicians of our time. His Brahms concertos with Colin Davis have always stood the test of time and once more take their place among the finest recordings. In the First Concerto others may burn with an even whiter heat or play with greater breadth and grandeur. But Kovacevich’s poise at the close of the Adagio, like some glorious sunset slowly sinking into oblivion, is unforgettable and his blistering pace in the finale is characteristically trenchant and exhilarating.
In the Second Concerto you are made to feel a sense of romantic turbulence beneath its towering spans and arches, and every formidable demand is met with unflagging brio and a fierce musical commitment. The finale, too, in such hands becomes a ‘glory of tumbling gaiety’ (Edward Sackville-West). True, others are gentler and more giving in the more autumnal pages of Op 76 and the Four Ballades but the E flat minor Scherzo benefits immeasurably from a fierce propulsion. Sound and balance are admirable.
Piano Concerto No 2*. Eight Pieces, Op 76
Nicholas Angelich (pf) *Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi
Virgin Classics 266349-2 (75’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Here is a young Titan of the keyboard who, although very much his own man, takes you back to the incandescence of Emil Gilels’s early performances. In Brahms’s Second Concerto, Angelich and Järvi form a partnership so finely integrated as to make the singling-out of this or that detail invidious. Yet such towering strength and conviction is matched by a self-effacing quality and a need to serve only Brahms’s glory. Angelich’s playing may forge ahead with a breathtaking richness and momentum, yet listening to his first entry in the Andante it would be hard to imagine a more hushed or thoughtful climb up that magical spiral of sound. Again, Angelich reminds you of a volcanic force beneath an outwardly playful surface, and the same magnificence applies to his coupling of the Op 76 Klavierstücke. Admirably recorded and balanced, these works have rarely received finer performances.
Brahms Piano Concerto No 2*. Rhapsody, Op 79 No 1**. Capriccio, Op 76 No 2** Chopin Nocturne, Op 27 No 2**. Waltz, Op 64 No 2** Falla El Amor brujo – Ritual Fire Dance**
Arthur Rubinstein (pf) *WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Christoph von Dohnányi
ICA Classics ICAC5003 (75’ · ADD). Recorded live **1963, *1966. Buy from Amazon
Arthur Rubinstein was at the height of his powers during the 1960s and, heard live from Zürich and in a rare appearance with a German orchestra, he performs with an eloquence and exultance that are quite simply unique. Every inch a musical king, he makes no sentimental concessions but imperiously sweeps Brahms’s outsize demands under the carpet. At the same time, his seamless legato, ravishing tone and soaring lyricism declare his identity throughout. Hear him in the più adagio section of the Andante and you will note his indelible individuality, that momentary holding back within the phrase, that sudden catch in the voice that made him possibly the greatest ‘singer-pianist’ of all. Again, never did the outwardly academic term rubato translate so effortlessly into musical breathing.
A momentary failure of concentration in the opening pages of the Allegro appassionato is compensated on the repeat with unfaltering authority; and if the finale is a ‘glory of tumbling gaiety’, you are also conscious of an iron fist in a velvet glove. Then there is one delectable encore after another, each reflecting a time and place before the constricting influences of the competition circuit or the tyrannical quest for clinical, note-perfect CDs. The transfers are excellent and so one can hardly be sufficiently grateful for the issue of such musical and, above all, human treasure.
Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 54
Van Cliburn (pf) Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Fritz Reiner
Testament SBT2 1460 (83’ · ADD). Recorded live 1960. Buy from Amazon
Van Cliburn’s triumph at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and his unprecedented ticker-tape welcome home was a story that made front pages worldwide. What other pianist has inspired that kind of coverage? His subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 was the first classical LP to sell a million. That and the follow-up of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with all their imperfections, remain among the most viscerally exciting performances of the works on disc.
Recorded within days of each other in April 1960 by RCA, neither of these recordings has been published previously. The reasons are unclear: it could hardly be because of a few inaccuracies and the barely noticeable omission of half a bar in the first movement of the Brahms noted in the booklet essay. The recorded sound is fine for its time, though Orchestra Hall, Chicago, is less resonant with a full house than when empty, as comparison with the ‘studio’ recordings of both these works with the same conductor and orchestra reveals, the Schumann made four days after the present concert, the Brahms just over a year later. And if the slightly faster tempi in the 1961 Brahms had obtained in this live recording, both concertos could have squeezed on to a single disc.
Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet No 1, Op 25
Daniel Barenboim (pf) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
EuroArts DVD 202 0108 (102’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM Stereo 5.1 · 0). Buy from Amazon
These extraordinary performances were recorded live at the Herodes Atticus Odeon in Athens in 2004 and offer the first musical encounter between Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle. One-time rivals for the post of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, they here unite, happy to pay tribute to each other in a performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto of an epic grandeur and raw emotional intensity. Barenboim, pianist, conductor and political activist, has clearly reached the pinnacle of a dazzling career that has ranged from prodigy to the fullest maturity. Caught on this form, few musicians can approach him in stature. Rattle launches the opening tutti with an explosive force, and after an oddly stiff and self-conscious entry he quickly declares his true status, playing with a dark eloquence and with a breadth and range of inflection that allows him to savour every detail. Rarely can the first movement’s coda have emerged with such frenzied emotion, and here in particular both Barenboim and Rattle combine to sound like King Lear raging against the universe. The second movement, Brahms’s response to Schumann’s attempted suicide, is weighted with an almost unbearable significance and intensity, and in the finale Wolf’s strange dictum, ‘Brahms cannot exult’, is turned topsy-turvy.
The performance ends in a storm of applause and presentation of an outsize bouquet to Barenboim who graciously plucks out a single rose for his partner in glory. A playful tug-of-war follows as both artists seek to acknowledge each other’s achievement. Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet follows, a glowing tribute from one composer to another, recreated in all its richness by Rattle and the orchestra. Their way with the gypsy finale, aptly described as showing Brahms’s taste for ‘vigorous horseplay’, brings this momentous occasion to a close. There are more flowers and a standing ovation from an audience both elated and exhausted.