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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83* [46.46]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, Op. 1 [31.57]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
*Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. *Orchestra Hall, Chicago, October 1960; Hasselberg, Scheune, July 1988
BMG-RCA CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876-60860-2 [78.45]

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This performance of the concerto has a surprise in store, and it comes not from the pianist but from the podium. In place of the efficient Leinsdorf, impersonal and imperious, that we've come to expect, we get a genial, relaxed "Uncle Erich" who enjoys making music with a responsive ensemble. The opening horn solo emerges from silence with a sensitively shaded legato; indeed, all the concerto's cantabile passages go with suave tone and a real poetic nuance quite unlike the harder-edged orchestral sound of Leinsdorf's Boston years. If other interpreters - say, Fleisher and Szell (Sony) - have better realized the scherzo's volatility, the solid, compact tone and forward drive of this performance are certainly to the point. After a ruminative cello solo, the Andante expands into turbulent drama, finally subsiding into a mesmeric, long-breathed stillness. None of this focus on the orchestra is meant to downplay Sviatoslav Richter's excellence - though his role is obbligato in nature rather than primed for display - indeed, his pingy, sparkling launching of the finale sets the tone for a rendition that, by the coda, positively scampers.

Richter himself cuts a stronger profile in the Op. 1 Sonata. Granted, it's easier to make a strong impression when you have the stage to yourself; still, the forthright address and technical assurance with which the veteran pianist begins the piece makes you forget its basically heavyweight scale. In the first movement, he marks off important arrival points rhetorically and commandingly. If the evenly balanced tone occasionally hardens in sequences of block chords - much of the writing, even in melodic passages, is "vertical" in this way - no sense of strain ever intrudes, while pearly articulations in the high register offer a welcome tonal contrast. The Andante starts with Brahms casting about in dark, vaguely troubled waters, later easing into gentler lyrical ruminations. Richter allows the music to blossom expressively, the better to set off the thunderous octaves of the Scherzo. And the bounding, impulsive energy he brings to the Finale is simply beyond the (literal) reach of many players.

Brahms's scoring can be thick, and the engineers don't entirely avoid congestion in the tuttis of the concerto. Digitization, however, has restored a measure of tonal luster missing from the shallow, glassy Gold Seal LPs issued Stateside. In the sonata, the piano is ringy and full-bodied, without harshness. Warmly recommended.

Stephen Francis Vasta




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