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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat, op.83 (1)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Drei Klavierstücke, D.946
Claudio Arrau (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson (1)
Recorded Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, 17 June 1963 (Brahms), BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, 9 March 1959 (Schubert)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4125-2 [76:38]

 

Arrau left a vast legacy of studio recordings, and when I saw that BBC Legends were putting out a version of a concerto which he set down more than once with de-luxe orchestras and starry names on the rostrum, my immediate reaction was that they were just cashing in on his great name. Now I have heard the disc I am happy to say this is not so, for it adds to our knowledge of his art.

I have investigated Arrauís recordings more dutifully than enthusiastically over the years, finding him rather avuncular in his measured expounding of the texts, and the rich and rounded timbres the Philips engineers blessed him with in his later decades only contributed to the effect. Here, in a slightly clangy and shallow mono recording (but one you can get used to quite quickly), he is heard playing like a man possessed. Though the tempo in the first movement of the Brahms is very broad, and treated with a certain flexibility (an ebb and flow rather than actual gear-changes) the effect is often that of a molten fury, contrasting with the amplitude of the more relaxed moments. This continues not only in the second movement but also in much of the third, which is actually taken relatively fast. Others have found more grace and playfulness in the finale but underplaying this movement can be a danger if it is to make a proper conclusion to the majesty of what has come before, and no one could accuse Arrau of doing that. It seems then that Arrau, like so many others, even those apparently unafraid of the recording process, was freer with a public in front of him, so I hope the ubiquity of his commercial records (itís unlikely that any radio station actually has tapes of him playing anything he didnít record commercially in his long career) will not discourage further investigation.

All this would have been useless without proper collaboration from orchestra and conductor, and here too I had a pleasant surprise. In the four years I spent in Edinburgh in the early seventies I heard much from Gibson and admired a lot of it, but Brahms never seemed to be his composer, a finely conceived Second Symphony apart. He also often seemed overawed by the most famous soloists and accompanied them with more respect than inspiration. But he was an unpredictable artist and on his day he could come up with things youíd never have believed of him. So it is here; he conducts with a passion and poetry that he never managed in any of the Brahms performances I witnessed. Furthermore, he seems to have identified himself totally with Arrauís interpretation, so that the ebb and flow of tempi is exactly matched between them. In 1963 he was just four years into his long reign with the SNO and had many years of hard work ahead before the orchestra was to become a viable recording orchestra and could measure up to international tours. Yet they seem galvanised by the occasion and sound in pretty good shape.

Perhaps BBC Legends should be looking at their Gibson material, for on his day he could be memorable. Still, this is Arrauís disc, and who could complain about the robust Schubert which completes the programme? Perhaps this Schubert seen through Beethovenian eyes, but better that than underplay this visionary works. If you donít know these late pieces, written six months before Schubertís death, then donít imagine they are a pleasant little make-weight. The three of them play for nearly half-an-hour and if Schubert had been born a little later he would have called them "Ballades" or something of the kind. This 1959 recording actually sounds better than the Brahms.

Christopher Howell

 



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