Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Maurizio Pollini, piano; Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 447 041-2.

Admittedly, I still warmly welcome any new recording by pianist Maurizio Pollini. In fact, I suppose it is a testament to my age that I continue to think of him of a "young" pianist, having first heard him only some fifty years ago. His interpretations may not always have the sparkle of those from some of today's new talents, but they always seem right. This 1998 release of the Brahms First Piano Concerto is no exception. 

Pollini makes the dark, massive, craggy opening movement seem all the more ominous by his aggressive forward momentum and sometimes fierce attack. By comparison, Emil Gilels, my comparison because it's also on DG, is more relaxed and warmhearted. I suspect that although Gilels is the easier to listen to, it may be Pollini who is closer to the spirit of Brahms. In the second movement Adagio, however, I must favor Gilels's more congenial approach. Pollini seems just a tad distant in this section, even if the aristocratic central melody demands such treatment. The finale, the Rondo: Allegro non troppo, finds Pollini at his best, amply displaying the varied changes of temperament Brahms indicates and sounding more relentless than Gilels ever does.

Maurizio Pollini
DG's sound is not much different than that which they produced for Gilels/Jochum over a quarter of a century earlier: It's big and warm, and it's without the definition EMI or even Philips provided for Stephen Kovacevich or Decca provided for Clifford Curzon. Now, here's the clincher for me: DG recorded Pollini live. While there is hardly a trace of audience noise anywhere, we do find the piano rather forward, spoiling the illusion of being there.

So, all of this avoids the question: Is Pollini a first choice in this repertoire? Bottom line: No, not for me. If one already owns any of the above-named recordings, should Pollini displace them? No, I don't think so. Each interpretation bears its own mark, and Pollini's version certainly bears the stamp of nobility and authority. But for my own taste, the more idiosyncratic approach of Clifford Curzon continues to be the disc I play the most often for personal enjoyment. And don't forget that DG offer both of the Brahms concertos with Gilels in a mid-price "Originals" double package, which is pretty hard to pass up.

Also, be aware that the folks at DG make this concerto available from the same performers in a double-disc set with the Second Concerto. And that Pollini has recorded the Brahms concertos with several other conductors over the years, like Karl Bohm and, more recently, Christian Thielemann, all for DG. Choices, choices.


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

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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.

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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