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Rudolf Serkin, pianist. The Art of Interpretation
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15 *
Variations and Fugue for piano in B flat on a theme by Handel
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell *
Recorded April 1968 in Cleveland (Concerto) and January 1979 in Guilford, Vermont (Variations)
SONY CLASSICS 5128752 [74.22]

Sony has embarked on a large reissue programme of Serkin’s recordings. Some will be very familiar through various incarnations over the years whilst others derive from rather more obscure corners – or if not obscure then rather older sources (his Bach disc, to be reviewed soon, includes just the Aria from the Goldberg Variations – all he recorded at the time - from 1976, the Prades Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1950) and a Brandenburg Concerto No.5 conducted by Casals from Marlboro in 1964 amongst others – a disparate bunch indeed).

No such considerations concern this Brahms reissue and in a sense there’s very little for me to say about it except to welcome it back to the fold. This classic Concerto recording should never be out of the catalogue, in the same way as the Curzon/Szell recording should never be out of the catalogue. Really it should be mandatory listening for aspiring pianists. The playing is superbly articulate, the orchestral principles characterful, the rhythm sprung with playful élan (not least in the finale). It seems to me the greatest of Serkin’s recordings of it – preferable to the 1946 Reiner, the earlier Szell (1952) and the Ormandy. The remastering doesn’t seem to have materially altered things – they may even be the same tapes as before – but the production, that seems to have been released under the auspices of the French branch, has added the Variations and Fugue for piano in B flat on a theme by Handel in this 1979 reading when Serkin was seventy-six. It’s a work of Brahms’ youth and Serkin relaxes into it in a way he didn’t earlier in his career. Fortunately Sony has individually tracked each variation. He is especially slow in variations 21 and 22 but his final Fugue is leonine and decisive enough even if elsewhere things are just too becalmed and clement.

The variations are noted as being a first CD release, which if so is even more of an incentive to acquire this august reissue.

Jonathan Woolf

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