by John Quinn
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83* (1881) [48:42]
Klavierstücke, op. 76 (1871-1878) [25:03]
Nicholas Angelich (piano)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi*
rec. Hessischer Rundfunk/hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt, 6-9 April 2009
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2663492 [74:37]
In an interview for MusicWeb International with Aart van der Wal, earlier this year, the American pianist, Nicholas Angelich, makes clear his love for the music of Brahms. That interview is well worth reading, not least because it is very relevant to this new recording.
In the interview Angelich cites recordings by Wilhelm Backhaus (with Karl Böhm) and by Edwin Fischer (live in 1942 with Furtwängler) as recordings that he especially admires. He comments: “The Brahms Concerto is very, very special…. In a way it is a symphony with the piano inside, and at the same time it is both a real concerto and chamber music! Soloist and conductor need to be able to make that all happen. Of course, when you don’t have a good relationship with the conductor you will not be able to find something that will musically work for you. That applies to any concerto, but even more strongly to the Brahms. When you cannot change anything or if your views are more or less ignored you are lost as a soloist.” He went on to praise the conductor Paavo Järvi, with whom he seems to have a significant rapport on the evidence of this present disc – the same artists have already recorded the First concerto. That disc was released in 2008, but I haven’t heard it and, indeed, I’m not entirely sure that it remains in the catalogue (Virgin Classics 5 18998-2).
This new recording of the Second Concerto begins auspiciously. Many performances linger a little – or sometimes more than a little – over the triplet at the top of the opening phrase but that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the phrase just unfolds simply, first on the horn and then on piano, but the lack of rubato doesn’t mean there’s no feeling. As Järvi and his orchestra continue to unfold the opening pages one is quickly aware that the orchestral accompaniment is very distinguished. The playing is full of fibre but, equally, the tone produced by all sections is rich and warm. One also notices throughout the performance that, when called for, the orchestral attack is firm and precise. In short, I’d be surprised if anyone buying this recording is at all disappointed by the quality of the accompaniment.
Nor do I think the standard of the solo playing will disappoint. I don’t believe I’ve heard Nicholas Angelich play before but I was most impressed. In the first movement his playing is, by turns, commanding and poetic. I believe that the solo part was the last concerto that Brahms took into his own concerto repertoire – he gave the first performances with Hans von Bülow conducting – and I’m sure that he, like countless pianists since, found that he’d set the soloist a formidable range of challenges. Angelich takes all these in his stride and, indeed, appears to surmount them with ease. One thing that impressed me repeatedly throughout was the sheer clarity of his playing, even in the most demanding, tumultuous passages (sample the section in the first movement between about 7:30 and 8:20 as a good example).
There’s excellent rhythmic energy from the soloist and the orchestra in the second movement and the energy is apparent not just in the turbulent passages but also in those stretches where the music is more relaxed. It’s noticeable that in those relaxed sections there’s no dawdling; the performance remains purposeful, with good forward momentum.
For many listeners – and I’m one of them – the radiant slow movement is the heart of this concerto. It’s nothing short of scandalous that the player who here delivers the crucial cello solos is not named for he or she makes a very fine contribution indeed. Comparing this performance with the classic 1972 Gilels/Jochum recording on DG, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s cellist, the superb Ottomar Borwitzky, possesses perhaps slightly the richer tone but it’s a close run thing and the playing of the Frankfurt cellist is deeply satisfying. When, after the lengthy introduction, Angelich begins to play (2:37), his touch is quite magical. The passage beginning at 6:40, where the piano muses accompanied, initially just by two clarinets, is especially atmospheric, leading up to the return of the cello solo at 8:32. The very end of the movement is perfectly poised. The marvellous Gilels/Jochum account is more spacious overall – playing for 14:02 against 12:29 in this present recording - but the pacing adopted by Angelich and Järvi seems to me to be completely satisfying.
The finale is, for the most part, lithe and charming, though Brahms briefly admits some darker passages. Angelich and Järvi catch the mood expertly and theirs is, overall, a light-hearted and genial reading. Towards the end, where Brahms employs triplets to add rhythmic urgency and impetus, the reading is exhilarating.
The choice of the eight Klavierstücke to complete the disc is an intelligent one. These short pieces consist of four pieces entitled Capriccio and the same number of Intermezzi. Angelich does them all very well. The first, a Capriccio in F Sharp major, was a fifty-second birthday present for Clara Schumann in 1871. We read in the notes that she thought the music put her in mind of a desolate, windswept cemetery – just the sort of birthday gift one wants! Hearing Angelich’s performance, which is full of feeling and fantasy, I can understand her reaction. Angelich’s finger-work in the light, dancing Capriccio in B minor (No. 2) is admirably nimble while in the pensive Intermezzo in A Flat major that follows he evidences a beautiful, poetic touch, not for the first time on this CD. I admired also the strong way in which he projects the restless, even fiery Capriccio in C Sharp minor (No 5) and his beautiful phrasing in the Intermezzo in A minor (No. 7). Collectors may wish to be reminded that an earlier recital of Brahms’s solo piano music by Angelich, also for Virgin Classics, impressed Christopher Howell (review).
As I hope I’ve made clear, this is a very fine Brahms disc indeed. The Klavierstücke are far from being mere ‘fillers’ and they receive distinguished and well-considered performances. Inevitably, however, most attention will centre on the concerto performance and Angelich’s is a very good one. Though his playing is distinguished – and, as such, offers a good enough reason to invest in this disc – I’m sure he’d be the first to agree that the success of the whole enterprise is enhanced greatly by the extremely fine playing of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Nor should one overlook the conducting of Paavo Järvi, which is excellent. He has clearly trained the orchestra expertly and he proves to be a sensitive and responsive accompanist – I suspect there’s good chemistry between him and Nicholas Angelich. Finally, the engineers have more than played their part by providing first class sound, which gives exceptional clarity to the orchestral textures while placing the music in a sympathetic, warm acoustic. The balance between the piano and the orchestra is very satisfactory.
There are a great number of recordings of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto in the catalogue and several are very fine indeed, including the Emil Gilels version, to which I’ve already referred. However, it seems to me that this new account by Nicholas Angelich deserves to be ranked among the very best. It’s a long time since I’ve enjoyed a performance of this masterpiece so much.