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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83 (1882).
François-Frédéric Guy (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Berglund.
Live performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on May 31st, 2003. DDD
NAÏVE V4944 [46’48]

I do not see the point of this product and I shall not be returning to it in a hurry.

It is almost tempting to leave the review at that for fear that once I start enumerating my objections I shall never stop. This live performance from the Festival Hall (with its notorious acoustic) is obviously a showcase for Naïve’s darling of the moment, François-Frédéric Guy. How they can offer just the Second Concerto with no filler at all in this day and age is completely beyond me. A mere 47 minutes long, there is ample space for, say some late solo piano music (some of the marvellous Opp. 116-119, perhaps?).

The crux of the problem seems to be Guy’s essential lack of identification with the Brahmsian sound-world. The literalism of his ‘replies’ to the (marvellous) opening horn solo (Richard Bissil) hardly bodes well, although at least he is accurate. A divide between soloist and orchestra soon emerges, with Berglund encouraging the LPO towards some lovely string playing. But even here there seems to be a lack of longer-range thought that means that the music positively sags towards the end. Some of the more dynamic passages are distinctly under-powered too (eg 6’38ff). The difficult (technically speaking) passage at 9’03ff is a virtuoso exercise in perfunctory playing from all parties involved.

Guy skirts around the piano part of the Scherzo, a pity as Berglund encourages the strings to Sibelian surgings within an unstoppable momentum (interesting that the concert this performance is taken from included Sibelius Fifth Symphony). The Andante is indeed walking pace (no lingering here), a shame as it would have been nice to enjoy cellist Richard Truman’s rich tone more. The speed would not have been a problem if it had brought with it some sense of repose – alas, there is an inappropriate nervous undercurrent exacerbated by Guy’s hard tone. The only word to describe the finale is deflated, like a forlorn balloon waiting desperately for someone to blow it up. Even the orchestra sounds bored by this stage, while Guy continues resolutely along the path of the hopelessly literal.

Maybe it just worked better in the concert hall. Certainly our own AR’s review implies this was the case ( Yet on disc this is as lacklustre as they come.

The design is strange. Easy on the eye at first (someone at naïve has a purple-fixation), the disc itself has purple writing on a purple background. Mark Rothko might well have approved. But then he didn’t try to include discographical information on his colour juxtapositions, did he?.

Colin Clarke

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