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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15a (1854-8) [53’24]
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1861, orch. SCHOENBERG 1938) [46’16].
aDaniel Barenboim (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle.
Rec. Herodes Atticus Odeon, Athens on May 1st, 2004. Includes ‘bonus film’, ‘The European Concert in Olympic Athens’ [18’17].
PAL. 16:9 anamorphic. PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1. Format DVD9.
EUROARTS 2053659 [127’00]

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What an occasion this must have been! The huge Herodes Atticus Odeon is packed to the rafters - if it had any; it is open-air. A hyper-scenic setting for this Brahmsfest.

Barenboim’s career is a long one. He recorded the Brahms First with Barbirolli, Philips Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century, 456 721-2. There remains something remarkably and infectiously youthful about him, despite the now-grey hair. This comes through his playing, too – at least live. Perhaps Rattles’ energy – and there is lots – has something to do with it. The opening tutti was driven, highly dramatic - plenty of shots of Rattle’s characteristic facial expressions. Yet Rattle also is able to give and take according to the Brahmsian swells.

From the piano’s first entrance it seems evident that soloist and conductor are in interpretative accord. Barenboim is capable of great delicacy, and his voice-leading - of paramount importance in Brahms - is exemplary. Watching him, it is remarkable how easy he makes the technical challenges seem. Equally remarkable is the depth of sound he conjures from his Steinway to evoke truly Brahmsian tonal richness. It seems all there, from the attention to detail to the overall picture of this huge first movement. The only blot on the landscape comes right at the end, a surprising (in context) rush to the finishing post as they get carried away in the ‘liveness’ of the occasion.

As the slow movement begins, the viewer is treated to a nice hot of the Parthenon atop its hill before the cameras pass around to give an aerial shot of the orchestra and then suddenly (too suddenly) close in on the horns. Rattle’s tempo is perfect – slow but not overly so. The recorded sound has the required depth and is nicely balanced.

Barenboim brings huge concentration to this movement, although his tone appears a little light at times. Nevertheless, this is absolutely lovely, a reading shot-through with understanding.

Barenboim opts for maximum tonal contrast for the finale. Using a remarkably hard touch (note his high right hand for his staccati – way above the keyboard), he gives a reading that can on occasion impetuously rush forward. Rattle clearly enjoys himself, and Barenboim raises his game to make even this hardened reviewer ponder that this is pianism verging on greatness. The chordal exchanges with the orchestra at the close are positively huge from the piano. Roses all round at the end, and deservedly so.

Rattle has acted as something of a champion of the Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet, having recorded it for EMI with his beloved CBSO (originally LP EL270169-1). Certainly played like this with the Berliners, there is no space for any doubt about the musical truth of the arrangement. The orchestral sound is not only warm but clear (everything is audible); no small achievement. As far as the recording itself is concerned, imaging is excellent. The camera-work is ‘traditional’ - following the soloist of the moment etc - and is certainly unobtrusive. Interesting that Rattle points out the parallels with the First Symphony’s first movement.

The uneasily shifting Intermezzo - superb woodwind contributions - seems a clear statement that the dark shadows of the first movement extend to here, too. The quicksilver end is most impressive.

The slow movement will be familiar to all that buy this disc. By which I mean that it is used as background music to the main menu. I have heard other critics complain about this in the past and until now have not really minded, but in this case I did find that irritating. Still, in context this works beautifully. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s string sound is huge; the return of the opening melody on oboe towards the close of the movement is like a ray of Athenian sunshine.

Finally, the ‘Rondo alla zingarese’, is given with real guts and gusto. The excellence of the recording is once more brought into focus by the fine cymbals. Rattle enjoys the ritardandi as he would in a Brahms Hungarian Dance, and the solo strings enjoy their moment of fame towards the end.

A superb DVD, and one of the best orchestral DVDs I have yet seen. Rattle is clearly doing wonderful things in Berlin – and Athens, come to that. The ‘extra’ film (in German with subtitles) begins with Greek pop music and shots of the sun setting over the Acropolis, juxtaposing this with scenes of the notorious Athenian traffic. The venue is discussed, as of course is the Athens Olympics; it almost seems like an advert at times. All this is followed by a brief history of the Europa Concert and the venues it has graced. But it is not for the filler you will be buying this. Enjoy the concert!.

Colin Clarke

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