> BRAHMS Concertos Brilliant [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concertos *
Violin Concerto ^
Double Concerto #
Waltzes Op 39 +
Klavierstucke Op 119 +
Karin Lechner, piano *+
Borika van den Booren, violin ^
Emmy Verhey, violin #
Janos Starker, cello #
Berliner Symphoniker conducted by Eduardo Marturet * ^
Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arpad Joo #
No recording details
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99274 [3 CDs 211’44] Superbudget

I recently reviewed a bargain box of Dvořák Concertos from the same source as these Brahms recordings. That was a generally very recommendable set featuring some remarkable recordings from the early to mid-1970s. This 3 CD Brahms box comes – at least mine came – without booklet notes and so sharp-eyed readers will have to consult Gramophone, Schwann and maybe German databases to ascertain the provenance of these otherwise undated performances.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this Brahms set as I was about the Dvořák. Karin Lechner plays both concertos, the op.39 Waltzes and Klavierstücke op.119. In terms of overall timings hers are not remarkably slow performances – but they are uneven in passagework, momentum and tempo relation. The First Concerto’s Maestoso opening movement begins at a determinedly granitic tempo and sounds inflexibly ponderous in places and the piano’s initial entry is unassertive, rather cool with some quite prosaic phrasing as the movement develops. The movement is also marred – and the brash recording doesn’t help – by some unnecessarily over-energetic passagework toward the end. I liked the slow movement much better. At a more freely moving speed with, it’s true, a rather unfocused wind choir behind her, Lechner plays with attractive intimacy. In the finale there’s rather a lack of orchestral involvement – the bass counter-themes are simply not brought out enough (though whether the responsibility lies more with conductor or recording it’s hard to say). There’s also a feeling of leadenness and though Marturet eventually whips up some excitement there’s something rather frantic and forced about it.

The Second Concerto receives an altogether more satisfying performance. The orchestra is not on top form though the principals of the Symphoniker do have attractively individual tonal profiles. The principal flute is especially piquant in his first movement solos. Doubts began to emerge over the level of exaggerated dynamics the orchestra indulged in – there is a distinct feeling of effortfulness about it – and the sense that this is imposed and not organic. But there is also some reflective and inward playing from the soloist as well as assured string playing. The second movement is heavily emphatic – with a directness in the beautiful and conciliatory "tune" that whilst unindulgent is also a little faceless. The unnamed cellist in the third movement has a lean and tightly focused tone – and the oboist shines here as well. Despite some disruptive left-hand work from Lechner the movement goes well enough, as does the less problematic finale. I liked the op.39 Waltzes rather more than her playing of the op.119 Klavierstücke. There is a degree of gusto to offset the generally heavy weather nature of her playing of the concertos and the unevenness of the other solo works.

The Violin Concerto opens weightily, slowly, stolidly. Van den Booren has a rather thin tone with some forcing and a rather limited range of tone colours. There’s also a little unsure bowing in the passage from 11’00 in the first movement. But I did enjoy the way that Marturet, unlike the bass counter-themes in the piano concerto, brings out some rich orchestral strands. But the first movement ending really is unforgivably portentous. The orchestral playing is generally adequate though the glassy sounding strings in the finale are not especially attractive and the orchestra’s wind section sounds consistently superior.

The Double Concerto is probably the pick of the bunch. I don’t know how often Starker has now recorded it but there seems to be a new or re-released Starker Double every few months. With his partner Emmy Verhey, not immaculate technically but pliant in phrasing, he is in good though not inspired form. There is a genuine sense of phrasal sensitivity from both string players, a palpable engagement and an attractive chamber intimacy in their exchanges and dialogues. Starker’s tone has a centre-of-the-note core to it which contrasts nicely with Verhey’s more pliable and less coiled tone. Joo conducts the Amsterdam Philharmonic with an understanding superior to that of Marturet.

As in so many cases of this kind – an unwieldy box set – I think you would be better advised to select your performances elsewhere.

Jonathan Woolf

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