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.

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  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.

  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.



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