BRAUNFELS; PFITZNER The Romantic Piano Concerto Vol 79
One key aspect of Pfitzner’s endlessly fascinating Piano Concerto that immediately strikes home is its harmonic richness, especially with respect to modulation: beam up 11'34" into the first movement and follow the music through for at least a couple of minutes, noting during the journey just how far Pfitzner is taking you. In an interesting booklet note for this release, Nigel Simeone suggests parallels with Brahms and Reger, principally relating to tone and scale but also, in the case of the Brahms, the inclusion of an added scherzo movement. The real contrast as I see it is that Pfitzner’s chattering Heiterer Satz is more a genuine scherzo than Brahms’s headstrong Allegro appassionato, with Markus Becker rather more fleet of finger than Tzimon Barto on what’s surely the best rival version, recorded live in Dresden with Pfitzner devotee Christian Thielemann conducting. What this movement most puts me in mind of, both in mood and its placement within the overall scheme of things, is the second movement of Busoni’s Concerto (1901 04; Pfitzner’s Concerto dates from 1922).
The lovely third movement suggests further parallels, most obviously with the sublime beauty of Pfitzner’s operatic masterpiece Palestrina but turning again to Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, the latter’s slow movement, especially the piano-writing from 3'27" (the soloist’s first entry). Here Becker is the restrained classicist against Barto the romantic, whereas in the finale’s opening pages he’s the more playful of the two, lending the music a delectable lilt (just as he did to Reger’s finale – AVI Music, 5/19). Prior to the concerto’s close there’s a virtuoso cadenza where both pianists deliver handsomely.
If pressed to choose I’d opt for Becker and Trinks, principally because of the way they balance the sum of the concerto’s substantial parts, and their generally superior recording. Also, don’t forget Walter Gieseking’s grandly stated wartime performance – Gieseking was a noted champion of the piece.
As to couplings, Thielemann chooses Busoni’s Symphonic Nocturne and Reger’s memorable Romantic Suite for a two CD release that, as Guy Rickards pointed out in his favourable review, could easily have been accommodated on a single disc. Hyperion interestingly treats us to what I presume is the first commercial recording of Walter Braunfels’s five-movement Tag- und Nachtstücke ‘for orchestra with piano obbligato’, music that dates from the early 1930s but wasn’t actually performed until summer 2017 (under Peter Ruzicka). Like most of Braunfels’s music that I’ve heard, it suggests a combination of profundity and play, being thematically pleasing, consistently inventive and very skilfully scored. There are times when the composer hints at progressive climes that Pfitzner doggedly resisted (Mahler is a distant presence), which makes Hyperion’s decision to place it alongside the concerto particularly valuable. An extremely fine release.