Brahms - Piano Concertos
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Label: ECM New Series
Cat No: 4855770
Number of Discs: 2
Release Date: 4th June 2021
WorksPiano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major, op.83
ArtistsAndras Schiff (piano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Yet, over years of continuously evolving interpretations, Brahms’s oeuvre has acquired an inappropriate heaviness more likely to conceal the fabric of his music than to unveil the subtle intricacies of its ‘developing variations’, to quote Schoenberg’s term for his compositional method. András Schiff emphasizes precisely this point in his new recording of the two piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
These developments, need it be said, are also related to changing performance conditions and transformations in society. But it is not always easy to say where the causal chain began. What is certain is that the growth of a global audience for music – with a corresponding increase in volume levels, larger concert halls and ever more massive ensembles and sturdier instruments – has led to a distorted image of Brahms that cries out for correction. After all, as Schiff puts it, Brahms’s music is ‘transparent, sensitive, differentiated and nuanced in its dynamics’.
In order to bring this to light, however, we must recall the performance conditions of Brahms’s day and reconstruct them as best we can. The Meiningen Court Orchestra, one of Europe’s most progressive and highly acclaimed orchestras of the era, and Brahms’s personal favourite (he conducted it in the premiere of his Fourth Symphony in 1885), consisted at times of no more than 49 musicians with nine first violins. Moreover, the pianos he preferred, mainly built by the firms of Streicher, Bösendorfer and Blüthner, were more limpid in their sound, richer in overtones, and responded to a lighter touch.
András Schiff already turned to period instruments on some of his earlier recordings for ECM’s New Series, including his two double albums with Schubert’s late piano works, for which he used a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in 1820. He had used the same instrument for his double album with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, contrasting this version with a reading of the same work on a Bechstein grand of 1921.
Now Sir András has chosen the conductor-less Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with its period instruments, for his recording of the two Brahms concertos. He plays an historic grand piano built by the Leipzig firm of Julius Blüthner in 1859. The result is nothing less than an attempt ‘to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse the music and to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing tradition’.
At times the recordings take on the quality of chamber music, as is especially telling in the last two movements of the B flat major Concerto (op.83). The result is a performance that approaches the original character of the sound, revealing those layers of the works that emphasise the dialogue between soloist and orchestra – and dispelling the preconception that the Second Concerto is a ‘symphony with piano obligato’.
Born in Budapest in 1953, Sir András Schiff has recorded for ECM’s New Series since the late 1990s. In addition to his acclaimed complete recording of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier, his ECM releases include sonatas and piano pieces by Schubert on an historic hammerklavier, works by Schumann, Janáček and Jörg Widmann, and songs by Debussy and Mozart with Juliane Banse.
The British Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was founded in 1986. True to its name, it is devoted primarily to music from the Age of Enlightenment. It plays on so-called ‘period instruments’ built at the time that the music was composed. Its 50 musicians frequently play without a conductor.
1Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor. op.15: I. Maestoso
2Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor. op.15: II. Adagio
3Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor. op.15: III. Rondo. Allegro non troppo
4Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83: I. Allegro non troppo
5Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83: II. Allegro appassionato
6Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83: III. Andante
7Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83: IV. Allegretto grazioso
Not that there aren’t some pleasant surprises along the way, however: for those who associate period instruments with high-speed skating over the notes, the relatively broad speeds in the faster movements may come as a shock (that of the First Concerto’s opening Maestoso stems from a metronome mark in Brahms’s autograph that didn’t survive into the printed editions). The slow movements, however, are more flowing than is now customary, and much the better for it. Perhaps a more generous deployment of the sort of flexible tempo that we know Brahms favoured would have been welcome, but Schiff’s straightforward approach has its benefits, notably in the D minor Concerto’s turbulent opening movement, which takes on an almost classical hue here, relating it more clearly to the Beethovenian inheritance that Brahms found both inspirational and daunting. And the strings’ expert deployment of portamento – the subtle sliding between two notes that was such a characteristic of this period – more than compensates for the similarly stylish restraint from using vibrato.
In the same Concerto’s central Adagio, the piano rhapsodising is exquisite, and soloist and orchestra work very much as equals in producing some telling timbral contrasts. Whether Brahms intended this movement as a requiem to his late friend Robert Schumann (whose alarmingly declining health cast its shadow over the composition of the whole work), or as a picture of Schumann’s widow Clara, it has unmistakably the air of a benediction. The Rondo third movement has extra lift and buoyancy here, and the way the cellos emphasise the cross rhythms in the return of the main theme’s tutti is particularly effective, as is the palpable glow the period instruments bring to the radiant D major coda. For those who associate this work with the Titanic power of an old repertoire war-horse and little else, there’s a transformative delicacy about this account that may change your perception of it.
The collaborative nature of the Schiff/OAE partnership is even more apt for the Second Piano Concerto, composed more than twenty years after the First. This has always been a work associated with a chamber-music feel, but in practice that has resulted in a huge range of divergent performance traditions. Here, however, it takes on an extra intimacy, particularly in the rapt Andante third movement, its cello solo meltingly played with a combination of purity and expressiveness by Luise Buchberger, with the piano solos musing from the sidelines. Before that, the dialogic nature of the work is evident in the quasi-improvisational opening of the epic first movement, with its Oberon-like horn call (evocatively rendered by the outstanding Roger Montgomery) answered by a piano cadenza that clearly references Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’. Not that the performance undersells the epic nature of the bigger moments of the tuttis, either here or in the demonic Scherzo that follows; but they are noticeably less ‘heavy’ than usual, while the piano’s answer to the exuberant, major-key, faux-Baroque Trio is unnervingly haunting in a manner reminiscent of Krystian Zimerman’s famous recording with Bernstein. As for the Allegretto grazioso finale, it’s a sheer joy: sparkling, agile, with nothing (including the tempo) forced or mannered, and the music allowed to speak in the best sense of the term. Here, as elsewhere, the OAE woodwind are especially characterful, notably Antony Pay’s first clarinet, and the performance ends in a state of perfect equilibrium. Schiff’s playing throughout is a joy, unflashy yet technically brilliant, and thoroughly in tune with his instrument, Brahmsian style and the hugely demanding piano writing.
These revelatory, stylish, richly nuanced yet refreshingly unmannered performances sweep so many cobwebs away that all Brahms lovers will surely want to hear them, while those for whom this composer remains a closed book are likely to be pleasantly surprised. Expertly recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios by Stephan Schellmann and John Barrett, with an excellent introduction by Schiff himself, it’s just a shame that Peter Gülke’s notes on the music itself couldn’t have been more idiomatically translated. Still, an unmissable release by any standards.
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