> Johannes Brahms - Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80 (1876)
Tragic Overture, Opus 81 (1876)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Opus 15 (1857)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Opus 83 (1881)
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
Rec 1968, CBS
SONY ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SB2K89905 [2CDs: 57.51+62.19]


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The two piano concertos of Brahms are major works in every sense. Each of them requires a level of heroic virtuosity which only the leading virtuosi of the day can possess. Yet this alone is not enough, since the relationship with the orchestra is so subtle and integrated, and on the largest scale too. For these are veritable symphonies, in which piano and orchestra develop the material with strength and integrity, and above all with a sense of teamwork that is second to none.

All these extraordinary phenomena are experienced in these performances by Rudolf Serkin and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. The First Concerto went through various stages of development until its reached its final identity; and there are those who claim that Brahms composed nothing better. It is certainly right to discuss the work in those unequivocal terms, and the magisterial playing of Serkin, allied to the subtle orchestral lines directed by that master Brahmsian George Szell, combine to give us a performance that is second to none. The tempestuous opening, at once agitated and maestoso, sets the tone, and Serkin shows a true command of the large scale vision which is at the heart of this masterpiece, which plays for in excess of 45 minutes.

The Second Concerto is no less fine. The Cleveland horn player makes a most effective opening to the work with a marvellously played solo, before the piano adds an heroic dimension with an initial cadenza which immediately extends the range. The first movement remains one of Brahms's greatest achievements, wide-ranging yet developed with the utmost cogency and urgency.

The rhythmic attack in the second movement scherzo is particularly exciting, not least because Szell's tempi are so keenly judged. There is both attack and vitality. The slow movement, on the other hand, is eloquence itself. There is a lengthy and important solo for the cello, beautifully played by the Cleveland Orchestra's principal, and it is in fact some several minutes before the entry of the soloist confirms that the piano concerto continues. Serkin is equally at home in phrasing and shaping the slower, expressive music, as he is in pressing the driving rhythms which are so important elsewhere.

The finale, surprisingly, uses a smaller orchestra with no trumpets, but it has a dance-like vitality founded upon that Hungarian flavour of which Brahms was so fond in such movements. It is no surprise that George Szell is in his element here, and plays his full part in giving us one of the great recorded performances of this wonderful concerto.

Szell and the orchestra take centre-stage in the opening items on each disc, the Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture, respectively. Both performances are keenly played and full of subtleties as well as - in the case of the latter- strength and power. The recordings match those of the two concertos, and are clear in focus and direct in impact. They are far from perfect, having been re-mastered from originals more than thirty years old. The main disadvantage is the lack of depth and perspective, which affects fully scored passages the most. But nothing is forced and unnatural, and therefore at bargain price this is a real attraction for the discerning collector. The combination of great music and a great pianist and conductor could hardly be more compelling.

Terry Barfoot

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