Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Nicholas Angelich, piano; Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Erato 0825646322954 (2-disc set).

When Erato first released the two Brahms Piano Concertos with pianist Nicholas Angelich, Maestro Paavo Jarvi, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra separately a few years ago, they escaped my attention. They did not, however, escape the attention of a lot of listeners who apparently loved them. Now that Erato has repackaged them together in a two-disc set, and I've had a chance to hear them, I can understand the public's approval. While Angelich doesn't quite displace my favorite sets from Kovacevich (Philips) and Giles (DG), this newer contender seems reasonably well recorded and comes at an agreeable price. It's a set to consider.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 while he was still a young man in his twenties. I've always seen the work as all craggy and monumental in scope, full of the boundless energy of youth. After a long and imposing orchestral introduction from Jarvi and the Franfurt RSO that does the concerto justice, Angelich enters relatively gently but enthusiastically. Here, we find in Angelich's playing a tempered combination of melancholy, drama, and Romantic lyricism. To his credit, the pianist seems more concerned with communicating the music's sweetness and light than its sometimes melodramatic passions.

Then Angelich tackles the Adagio, an elegiac tribute to Brahms's late mentor, Robert Schumann, with a touch less sentimentally than some other artists. He rightly emphasizes its spiritual qualities but without quite the gush we occasionally get. It's a straightforward, unadorned reading, all the more effective for it.

The finale comes as almost a surprise, a kind of rustic peasant dance that swirls and whirls its way through a series of variations. Angelich handles with it with commendable vitality, the orchestra always providing a sympathetically lively accompaniment.

The Brahms Second Piano Concerto (1881) appeals to me more than the First Concerto, maybe because it seems more mature, more lyrical, and more tuneful, and maybe because I'm just a sentimental Romanticist and find the Second Concerto more heartfelt. In any case, Brahms wrote it many years after the First Concerto, and it's unusual in its four-movement structure. Apparently, Brahms included an extra movement, a scherzo, because he thought the opening movement sounded too plain and simple.

In the Second Concerto Angelich seems more inclined to a full-throated voice than he did in No. 1, yet he maintains much poetry in the process. It's a delicate but successful balance of expression, the emotions rising and falling in smooth succession. Moreover, the dialogue between piano and orchestra seems even better integrated, with Angelich and Jarvi in complete harmony.

Angelich and company go on to communicate a buoyant, rhythmic, delicately powerful thrust in the scherzo. Then the piano takes an appropriately secondary role in the sweetly tuneful Andante (where the cello practically steals the show). Finally, Angelich ends the work with a quietly prancing, lightly dancing demeanor that is every bit as charming as the music demands.

If there is any minor drawback to the set, it's that the folks at Erato chose to offer nothing but the two concertos on the two discs, omitting the other stuff that filled out the previous single-disc editions. Still, the price is affordable (with some on-line sites selling it absurdly low), so one shouldn't complain.

Producers Udo Wurstendorfer and Etienne Collard and engineer Thomas Eschler made the recordings in 2007 (Concerto No. 1) and 2009 (Concerto No. 2) at Sendesaal, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt, Germany. As we might expect from recordings made in the same location, the different producers and two years separation notwithstanding, the sound is pretty much alike in both concertos with perhaps a very small advantage in clarity going to the second outing. In any case, the sound in both concertos is complementary to the performances. This is not to say it's entirely transparent, however; it's simply big and voluminous, the louder passages hampered very slightly by hall resonance. Nevertheless, the sound is natural enough and undoubtedly faithful to the recording environment. Most of the time, the hall acoustics provide a flattering ambient bloom, and, as I say, only in the more-emphatic sections do the sonics lose a little definition. Otherwise, the recording sounds warm, spacious, wide ranging, if a tad soft.


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

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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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