Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (HDCD review)

Clifford Curzon, piano; George Szell, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD337.

Here is another absolute, genuine, certifiable, dyed-in-the-wool classic from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). English pianist Sir Clifford Curzon made the recording with George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra over half a century ago, and no one has yet to surpass it. Now remastered to near-audiophile standards, it’s hard to see how any new contender will equal it.

Curzon (1907-1982) made a ton of recordings in his lifetime, yet he left us with only a relative few. That’s largely because he was a notoriously fussy perfectionist when it came to what he wanted the public to hear and refused to allow record companies (mainly Decca, with whom he recorded almost exclusively) to release any number of his recordings he didn’t think were up to his standards. He just didn’t feel satisfied with them. Fortunately, the Brahms was among the few things to get through and remain in the catalogue.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Brahms wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 while he was still a fairly young man. I continue to see the work as all craggy and monumental in scope, and Curzon’s potent interpretation (one of the first I remember hearing) is a chief reason for how I think of the Brahms today. The work also abounds in energy and vitality, perhaps the energy of youth, and here I think of Curzon as well, even if he was in his mid fifties when he recorded it.

Anyway, after a lengthy and properly regal orchestral introduction from Szell and the LSO to set the tone, Curzon enters with elegant power. While the First Piano Concerto may be a youthful work, Curzon does not overemphasize the fact with any excessive playfulness. Indeed, his is a mature, patrician account, frank and straightforward, and all the better for it. Yet it is also a kind of cozy account, especially in terms of the interplay between soloist and orchestra. Everyone sounds comfortably together, from the grandest gestures to the most intimate moments. Curzon glides through the first-movement Maestoso with the appropriate measure of majesty, yet with a delicate lyricism as well, and Szell seems perfectly attuned to the pianist's every mood and need.

In the second-movement Adagio Curzon again finds his range, although his pace is a tad more leisurely than other pianists of my experience. However, his step is never loose or slack, merely relaxed. The playing is quite lovely, the movement said to be an elegiac tribute to Brahms’s late mentor, Robert Schumann. Then, Curzon and company go out on a agreeably jubilant note in the finale, a spirited peasant dance with variations that sparkles with good cheer.

The crack Decca production team of producer John Culshaw and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the concerto at Kingsway Hall, London, in May 1962. HDTT transferred it from a 4-track in 2014. The orchestral support sounds big and bold, with plenty of dynamic range, impact, warmth, and clarity. In their own remastering Decca had already minimized much of the hard glassiness of their previous CD, and here HDTT does them one better. The HDTT sound is quite smooth for the most part, with a good degree of naturalness. Still, the recording itself is somewhat flat and one-dimensional, but that's apparently the way Decca recorded it. The piano sounds realistically well balanced with the orchestra, out front but not over prominently so. It sounds about the way a piano would appear if you were sitting at a moderate distance at a live concert. In short, the HDTT remastering and transfer are excellent and make a good thing better.

For further information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

2 comments:

  1. In stating that the Curzon performance is "insurpassable" you step into the realm of hyperbole, besides being unfair to Fleicher/Szell, Gilels/Reiner, Brendel/Abbado, and a number of others. I do like the Curzon/Szell recording, which I have owned since it was first issued on LP. But there is no such thing as a "definitive" or "insurpassable" performance.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks much for your feedback, brillinrio. Yes, I agree there are any number of fine performances of the Brahms First Piano Concerto, and you will find some of my own favorites listed in "The Basic Classical Collection on Compact Disc" in the left column of each page. I think perhaps you took my enthusiasm for Curzon's performance a bit too literally. As I said, "it’s hard to see how any new contender will equal it." But I'm always pleasantly surprised when musicians do equal and sometimes surpass old favorites.

    JJP

    ReplyDelete

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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa