Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Maurizio Pollini, Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
DG, 457 837-2 - 2 discs
(44'59 & 48'37), Mid-price
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The two piano concertos by Brahms are astonishing works and have often received
glowing performances on disc - but not by Pollini. If there is a similarity
between the Abbado discs and the Böhm discs (which Pollini recorded
in the 1970s) it is the sheer speed at which he takes these works. The
performance of the Berlin First comes in at little short of 45 minutes, whereas
Gilels (no slouch himself) comes in at a more measured 52 minutes. It is,
I'm afraid to say, a crucial difference and makes transparently clear why
the Gilels performance is an unforgettable one.
There is much more to both of these concertos than the often incandescent
piano writing. Pollini is a master of the keyboard but he misses the poetry
of these works in volumes. It is true that a great deal of Brahms' scoring
for the First Concerto is written at f or louder, but there are also
moments of great tenderness - notably the piano's first solo passage (marked
poco piu moderato) at bars 157 to bars 173. Here the markings of
expessivo, p legato and p dolce go largely unnoticed
by Pollini. One is constantly aware that this is a performance in which the
pianist is not so much the protagonist as the actual tyrant. One has only
to look at the final pages of the first movement to illustrate the point.
Bar 461 is the starting point for the pianist's final coda - quite unmatched
in any other concerto in terms of the sheer thrill it generates - and Pollini
is here absolutely compelling. Played at an almost continuous ff Brahms
unleashes a tirade of octaves that leaves even the greatest pianists with
misplaced fingers (just listen to Schnabel). From 20'03 to the movement's
close Pollini's technique is literally fabulous. No recording I have heard
before or since evinces the pianist's triumph so successfully - and this
is part of the problem. Where is the struggle in this performance?
The Second Concerto is a slightly different matter. As in his recording with
Böhm, Pollini is generally more erudite and persuasive. In this case,
poetry and lyricism go hand in hand with an incredibly weighty and Teutonic
conception of the work's progress. Speeds are generally less significant
here - he is only a couple of minutes faster than Gilels. It helps, too,
that the piano balance is significantly more natural in the Second Concerto
than it is in the First. Both the close of the first and second movements
are deliciously exciting (but gone are the days when audiences applauded
after these two movements) and the interaction between piano and cello in
the andante is beautifully caught.
Neither of these performances challenges existing recommendations for the
two concertos. I would recommend the First only for lovers of great pianism
- it is undeniably thrilling, a rollercoaster ride that has little to do
with Brahms and a great deal to do with showmanship. For both concertos stick
with Gilels or Solomon - but for a truly great First try William Kapell.
Should they ever appear on disc, Daniel Barenboim's Munich performances with
Sergiu Celibidache would sweep the board.