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Classics Explained: BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 2 in B Flat, Op. 83
An introduction to the work written and presented by Jeremy Siepmann.
Includes a complete performance by Jeno Jando (piano) with BRT Philharmonic, conducted by Alexander Rahbari.
NAXOS 8.558030-31 [115.25]
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This is one of the first releases in a new series, 'Classics Explained' from Naxos. On the evidence of this issue, the series promises much.

This release consists of a pair of well-filled discs containing a detailed introduction to each movement. Jeremy Siepmann, the writer and presenter, includes copious musical illustrations, followed by a complete performance of the movement in question. The significance of Siepmann's contribution can be gauged by the fact that the performance itself occupies less than 48 minutes.

Accompanying the CDs is a booklet of over 90 pages. The contents include a biographical note about the composer, a short note placing the work in the context of his overall output and another which quotes some contemporary opinions about the work when it was new. The full text of Siepmann's spoken commentary is printed, incorporating all the CD cueing points, of which there are many.

We also get an interesting essay entitled, "Challenges to the Interpreter"; a detailed "Structural Overview" of the work; a glossary of musical terms; and several other essays which are less directly related to the work itself but are no less helpful to the listener. These cover such topics as "Ways of Listening"; and a "Guide to the Composer's Tools". All in all, an extremely comprehensive package of material which is clearly designed to be dipped into rather than absorbed at one sitting. The tone of the writing, presumably all by Siepmann, is straightforward, clear and informative.

The spoken commentary is, of its kind, first class, as might be expected from an experienced broadcaster such as Jeremy Siepmann. He explains the course of each movement in detail, signposting every significant musical event and providing a helpful musical illustration for each. His style is lively and he never lapses into jargon. His explanation is clear and perceptive and the generous number of musical examples means that he can chart the course of each movement very lucidly. He offers the newcomer to this work a first class exposition, which, as it should, whets the appetite for a full performance.

This release operates at more than one level. Yes it is a good "beginner's guide" but someone who knows the work well can also listen to it with profit. The more experienced listener may not agree with every one of Siepmann's comments or insights - after all there is no "right answer" when listening to music. However, it is evident that he has a comprehensive knowledge of the concerto and the format of his talk and the documentation is such that any music lover might well say more than once; "I never noticed that before". I've known and loved this work for many years but I never found the commentary condescending or superficial. On the contrary, I feel I now know more about the concerto and can better appreciate it .

I wondered how someone who loves music but has not heard the concerto before might react. Fortunately, just such a person was at hand. My son, James, is a keen pianist and is studying music at A Level but he had yet to encounter this particular work. Deliberately, I did not discuss the discs with him, I just asked him to listen independently and give me his reaction to the CDs and to the documentation. His verdict was identical to mine. He found the presentation helpful both for the beginner or for the more experienced listener and commented that the package contained everything he needed to learn about the piece. He found Siepmann's talk clear and helpful with just the right amount of musical terminology and felt that the musical examples were particularly useful. Above all, the talk made him keen to hear the whole work.

The complete performance on the discs (and from which the extracts are taken) is one which was recorded a few years ago by Naxos's "house" pianist, Jeno Jando though you have to look very closely at the packaging to discover the identities of the performers. I think this is unfortunate; after all, they are significant contributors to the project. The account of the concerto is a perfectly serviceable one but on this occasion it is not really appropriate to provide a critique of the performance itself.

I do have one small reservation concerning the layout of the discs. The complete performance of each movement follows immediately after the commentary on that movement. Thus movements 1 and 2 are dealt with on the first disc and the other two occupy the second. I can see the logic behind this arrangement. However, I do wonder if it might have made more sense to place all the commentary on one disc and present the concerto complete on the other. As it is, one cannot hear the concerto straight through without skipping tracks and changing discs: this could be irritating on repetition. James had a similar reaction. This is a minor point, however. The key thing is that Naxos has provided a very full and generous introduction to this enduring masterpiece for about the same price as one would pay to go to hear the work in concert just once. The project certainly deserves top marks for presentation.

Both James and I think that Naxos have a winning formula here. I hope that, as they have done so often in the past, they will have the courage and foresight to expand the series. This is an excellent way for students and relative newcomers to music to learn what makes a work "tick". It is also very useful for others to refresh and expand their understanding of a familiar piece.

John Quinn and James Quinn

See also review by Terry Barfoot and details of other discs in this series

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