This performance of the concerto has a surprise in store,
and it comes not from the pianist but from the podium. In place
of the efficient Leinsdorf, impersonal and imperious, that we've
come to expect, we get a genial, relaxed "Uncle Erich"
who enjoys making music with a responsive ensemble. The opening
horn solo emerges from silence with a sensitively shaded legato;
indeed, all the concerto's cantabile passages go with
suave tone and a real poetic nuance quite unlike the harder-edged
orchestral sound of Leinsdorf's Boston years. If other interpreters
- say, Fleisher and Szell (Sony) - have better realized the
scherzo's volatility, the solid, compact tone and forward drive
of this performance are certainly to the point. After a ruminative
cello solo, the Andante expands into turbulent drama,
finally subsiding into a mesmeric, long-breathed stillness.
None of this focus on the orchestra is meant to downplay Sviatoslav
Richter's excellence - though his role is obbligato in
nature rather than primed for display - indeed, his pingy, sparkling
launching of the finale sets the tone for a rendition that,
by the coda, positively scampers.
Richter himself cuts a stronger profile in the Op. 1 Sonata.
Granted, it's easier to make a strong impression when you have
the stage to yourself; still, the forthright address and technical
assurance with which the veteran pianist begins the piece makes
you forget its basically heavyweight scale. In the first movement,
he marks off important arrival points rhetorically and commandingly.
If the evenly balanced tone occasionally hardens in sequences
of block chords - much of the writing, even in melodic passages,
is "vertical" in this way - no sense of strain ever
intrudes, while pearly articulations in the high register offer
a welcome tonal contrast. The Andante starts with Brahms
casting about in dark, vaguely troubled waters, later easing
into gentler lyrical ruminations. Richter allows the music to
blossom expressively, the better to set off the thunderous octaves
of the Scherzo. And the bounding, impulsive energy he
brings to the Finale is simply beyond the (literal) reach
of many players.
Brahms's scoring can be thick, and the engineers don't
entirely avoid congestion in the tuttis of the concerto.
Digitization, however, has restored a measure of tonal luster
missing from the shallow, glassy Gold Seal LPs issued Stateside.
In the sonata, the piano is ringy and full-bodied, without harshness.