Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Krystian Zimerman, piano; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0006203-2.

I have never been the biggest fan of the Brahms First Piano Concerto, but I have to admit that Zimerman, Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic bring it off almost as well any other musicians I've heard.

The problem for me with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (1858) is the whole first half of the opening movement: big, stormy, craggy, it seems too wayward and bombastic for the rest of the piece. Then, when the second subject takes hold, the composer so drastically changes the mood, it comes not so much as a breath of fresh air as a huge question mark. This was Brahms's first full-scale undertaking in the orchestral field, and perhaps the work suffers from being too much in the shadow and under the influence of Beethoven. Still, Zimerman manages to tie most of the movement together with his easy transitions and transcendent enthusiasm and energy.

While the second movement is a bit too noble yet sentimental for my ears, it comes off better than the first movement for its having a more stable center, a stronger focus, and Zimerman here manages to infuse the music with an appropriately sweet serenity. The final movement is my own favorite of the concerto, a notably lighter, more high-spirited affair than the tumult that precedes it, yet possessing a conspicuous gravity, too. Again, Zimerman and company convey it with manifest ease. If I continue to prefer the performances of Curzon (Decca), Gilels (DG), or of Kovacevich (EMI and Newton), understand that I have lived with them longer, and it takes nothing away from Zimerman's account.

DG's sound, recorded in the Scoring Stage, Berlin (thankfully, not live), is full and well rounded, the soloist nicely integrated into the proceedings rather than standing out too closely to the listener. The orchestral depth, however, seems rather lacking, as does something in the way of transparency. The piano itself is remarkably realistic, with a beautiful tone, but the orchestral accompaniment is without much ultimate sonic sparkle.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa