> BRAHMS Concertos Schnabel 8110664 []: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15 *, Intermezzo in E flat, op. 117/1, Intermezzi in A m, op. 116/2; Rhapsody in G minor, op. 79/2
Artur Schnabel (pianoforte), London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell*
Recorded 9.1. and 18.12.1938, EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 1 (concerto)
4.6.1947, EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 3 (solo pieces)
NAXOS Historical 8.110664 [61.34]

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No fewer than three of the finest recordings of Brahmsís first concerto were conducted by Szell Ė the others being with Curzon and Serkin. Indeed, Schnabel was extremely fortunate in his Brahms concerto recordings since he had Boult as conductor for no. 2.

It is possible to feel that the tragic, impassioned First Concerto was more suited to Szellís severe but intense, far from unfeeling, style of conducting than any of the symphonies. The opening tutti unfolds at a tempo fast enough to maintain onward momentum yet with all the time in the world to express the more tranquil moments. Against this firm background Schnabel is in magnificent form, and I have never heard his piano sound so rich-toned. Gone is the hollow clatter which often seems an inevitable part of the Schnabel legend; the sound is warm and full and convincingly real. I do find the orchestral timbres unduly strident in the upper register, but if the price for filtering this back would have been a loss of bloom on the piano sound then so be it. Producer Mark Obert-Thorn warns us that the original was "miked so closely that ... the piano tone was blunt and dull." It is so no longer and we shall probably have to accept that the performance sounds as well now as it ever will. We need find no difficulty in appreciating the clarity with which Schnabel reveals Brahmsís richest textures, the natural limpidity of his phrasing and the sheer naturalness with which he moves from point to point in a movement which often sprawls. Yes, he catches a few crabs, but who cares.

The Adagio gives the lie to the idea that Schnabel often took slow movements swiftly because of 78 side-lengths. When he wanted a really slow tempo the engineers just had to find room for him! Here he is sublimely spacious and, aided by Szellís watchful eye which keeps things from stagnating, achieves one of the most gravely expressive readings I have heard. The Finale is spirited but always firmly in control. Jonathan Summersís informative note finds it necessary to defend the pianist against charges of "snatched, lumpy phrasing" in this movement. While I found that the corresponding movement in Schnabelís recording of the "Emperor" sometimes falls victim to its own impetuosity, I have to say that I found this Brahms finale full of character, not snatched at all.

The two Intermezzi combine luminous textures with effortless realisation of the composerís counterpoint. The central section of op. 117/1 is a notorious quicksand for many student pianists tempted by the "easy" outer sections. This is how it goes! The Rhapsody penetrates Brahmsís tragic turmoil as few do. It is a thousand pities that these three pieces are all the Brahms solo pieces we have from Schnabel. The notes refer to an unreleased version of the Rhapsody op. 79/1 made at the same time as these. Does it still exist?

The legend persists that Schnabel had "no technique". I say that, if technique means digital dexterity, anyone with ten fingers, unlimited time and a metronome can get there in the end. But if it means the ability to separate triplets, melody and bass-line as Schnabel does in the G minor Rhapsody, with the clarity of a finely-rehearsed string quartet and the sonority of a full orchestra, then he reveals a total command over his instrument such as is given only to the very few.

Schnabel was a very complete Brahmsian indeed and these recordings are essential documents as well as an unmissable bargain at Naxos price.

Christopher Howell


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