Brahms: The Piano Concertos (CD review)

Nelson Freire, piano; Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhaus Orchestra. Decca B0006588-02 (2-disc set).

When German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his two piano concertos almost a quarter of a century apart in 1854 and 1878, the public seemed indifferent, and critics were downright hostile. By the middle of the following century, however, both concertos were firmly established in the basic repertoire, the public having slowly accepted them as classics of their kind. I wonder if it isn't time to reassess their importance.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, was Brahms's first full-scale undertaking in the orchestral field, and perhaps the work suffered from being too much in the shadow and under the influence of Beethoven. The whole first half of the opening movement is too big, stormy, craggy, wayward, and, for me, bombastic for the rest of the piece; then, when the second subject takes hold, the mood is so drastically changed, it comes not so much as a breath of fresh air as a huge question mark. The second movement is a bit too noble yet sentimental to my ears, but it comes off better than the first movement for its having a more stable center, a stronger focus. The final movement is my personal favorite part of the concerto, a notably lighter, more high-spirited affair than the tumult that precedes it, yet also possessing an obvious seriousness. As for the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, it seems to occupy an entirely different musical world altogether, one filled with more lyricism yet accumulated gravity as well.

Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire is a remarkably talented musician whose most preeminent gift is his complete and utter naturalness, his unforced charm. His playing seems almost casual, it's so smoothly rendered. For this reason, I appreciated his work more in the Second Concerto than in the First, because in the Second he seems more at home. Then, too, he is accompanied quite accommodatingly by maestro Riccardo Chailly, and he's supported by one of the oldest and most-refined orchestras in the world, the Leipzig Gewandhaus. For a set of both the Brahms Concertos, one could hardly ask for more.

Unless it's the sound, which comes off as a tad odd. The jewel box says it was recorded live in 2005 and 2006, so I expected the usual too distant or too close miking and audience rustling. I was right; it is recorded relatively close, fortunately minimizing any peeps from the listeners. But as I feared, it's too close. While we're on top of the piano and orchestra, there is little compensating detail revealed. In fact, compared to four or five other Brahms Piano Concerto recordings I had on hand for comparison, this one is closer and softer than any of the rest. I dunno; it's a nice set of performances, but do we really need more recordings of these pieces when we already have the likes of Giles, Curzon, Kovacevich, Pollini, and others doing them just as well or better, and in better sound? I rather think this set may appeal more to established fans of the musicians involved or to dedicated collectors than to the music-buying public in general.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa