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