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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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.

Mission Statement

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