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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83 (1881)* [47:28]

Jaan RÄÄTS (b. 1932)

Symphony No. 5 op. 28 (1967) [29:33]
Peter Rösel (piano)*
Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau/Golo Berg
rec. Grossen Has des Anhaltischen Theaters Dessau, 27-28 May 2004, (live recording). DDD
ANTES BM-CD 31.9204

This is a bizarre disc, harnessing a worthy performance of a favourite romantic concerto with a neglected symphony from the 1960s by an obscure contemporary composer. Familiar and unfamiliar together can be a winning combination. Paavo Järvi's recent run of recordings for Telarc are an example. Here, however, there does not seem to be any link at all between these pieces. Thrown together in a flash of enterprising concert programming and taped live, they make very strange bedfellows. Given the relative obscurity of this label, though, that very weirdness may be the factor that gives this disc the market penetration it deserves.

Certainly this is a performance of Brahmsí Second Piano Concerto that is worth hearing. The soloist, Peter Rösel, is not as well known as he deserves to be. A student of Lev Oborin, he built his career in communist East Germany and has only made limited inroads into the consciousness of music lovers in the west - at least those who, like me, did not have ready access to his vast discography for Berlin Classics. My only previous encounter with Rösel is as pianist in a couple of concertante works in Kempe's superlative Dresden survey of Richard Straussí orchestral works for EMI (CD - 73614). He acquits himself admirably there, but I must confess that I listen to those pieces only rarely, being much more enamoured of the big tone poems.

I had, though, heard tell of the greatness of Röselís 1970s performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, which is spoken of in hushed tones by some critics. His cycle of Brahms' solo piano music from around the same time is also highly regarded, so I was keen to hear what him in a big Brahms concerto. He certainly does not disappoint. There is much to enjoy in his big-boned and darkly German performance.

For me, the centrepiece of this performance is the scherzo, which is beautifully nuanced. Rösel has the full measure of the ebb and flow of the drama of this movement,. He resists the temptation to rush but keeps the music moving forward, ably abetted by Berg and his orchestra. The first movement has grandeur without bombast; the third movement floats gently by, and the performance is brought to a close by a finale of gentle humour. This recording does not crackle with the excitement of Richterís account with Leinsdorf on RCA (CD - 60860-2), and it does not offer the depth of emotion and joy that Kovacevich brings out in his recording with Colin Davis on Philips. This is instead a warm and relaxed performance, in which the humour of the finale twinkles knowingly in the eye. It is a performance for warm summer afternoons and one that will make you smile. Rösel is a custodian of a style of pianism that falls somewhere between the German tradition of Wilhelm Kempff and the more ruminative side of Gilels. While not a first choice, his performance is well worth hearing and lovers of this concerto will gain from Röselís insights.

A word about the orchestra. While hardly a major player, the Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau can be proud of this recording. The strings are lighter in tone than their Saxon neighbours, the Staatskapelle Dresden and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but they play with transparency. There are a couple of shrill notes from the violins and there is a little blandness in some of the phrasing and exposed solo playing - with the notable exception of cellist Maurice Lepitat in the third movement - but there is nothing here that will really detract from your enjoyment of this performance.

The symphony is also noteworthy, if only because it may be the only music by Estonian composer Jaan Rääts that you will ever hear . Rääts was completely unknown to me when I received this disc for review, a function of the fact that he has lived his musical life in the shadow of his more famous contemporary and compatriot, Arvo Pärt. His music has been performed internationally, though - notably by that doughty champion of Estonian music, Neeme Järvi. He has also been a major influence on younger Estonian composers, numbering Erkki-Sven Tuur among his pupils.

I have not been able to find any mention on the internet of other recordings of his music. This may be the only one. That being the case, it deserves special attention. [but see review - LM]

Rääts wrote eight symphonies. The fifth dates from 1967, at a time when Pärt was still writing serial music. It is clearly the work of an expert craftsman with an ability to assimilate different styles and a keen interest in form. It is something of a symphonic palindrome in five movements: allegro - andantino - allegro - andantino - allegro. The first, second, fourth and fifth movements are of roughly the same length, with the central allegro a good deal shorter.

The music is built on a set of motifs, including a bluesy clarinet theme and diverging lines for brass, with strings underneath. Throughout, euro-jazz rubs shoulders with serialism and tone-row counterpoint. Something about the writing reminds me of the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold. That is not to say that there is a common thread in the idiom of these two composers, but rather that Rääts writes for orchestra in a similar way to Arnold. He colours his score with distinctive writing for brass and woodwind, throws in percussion for effect and uses the strings to provide an undercurrent or rhythmic background, or occasionally to provide a lush tune tutti. The strings never really lead the music from the front.

Berg and the orchestra perform the symphony tidily, but with little flair. Their ensemble is good, but it is a case of safety first: the performance, solid though it is, never takes wing.

Though radically different in idiom and style, this odd couple may turn out to be a symbiotic pairing for Antes. Certainly Röselís performance stands a better chance of being bought and heard coupled with the Rääts symphony than if the disc had been filled out with more Brahms. Bigger names and bigger labels dominate that space. Similarly, Rääts coupled with Rääts or other obscurities would be a mere curiosity and would draw few but the most intrepid purchasers. Only Naxos, with its low, low prices, would be able to sell such a disc in any real quantity. Put it together with the Brahms, though, and maybe the purchase becomes a bit safer?

Not essential listening, but certainly interesting.

Tim Perry


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