disc is the seventeenth in the continuing Naxos series of Brahms’
complete four hand piano music. It is an odd project in a way.
After all, Brahms’ primary aim in arranging his orchestral works
for piano was to disseminate his music more widely. Now that
we have ready access to recordings of the original orchestral
works, surely we do not need these arrangements any more, let
alone recordings of them. Or do we? Brahms was a consummate
craftsman, and he brought his considerable skill to bear in
preparing arrangements of his own music and the music of his
friends. Here, the result of his labours make for satisfying
listening in their own right, and shed new light on the original
major arrangement on this disc is the 1873 two piano version
of Brahms’ first piano concerto. The concerto started life
as a sonata for two pianos - not the version recorded here -
morphed into something of a symphony, before reaching its final
form. The concerto was then arranged for four hands at one
piano in 1864 (recorded on Naxos 8.554116),
and nine years later it was arranged for four hands at two pianos
- the version recorded here - bringing the piece full circle,
from two pianos, back to two pianos.
is not entirely clear whether Brahms arranged this 1873 version
of his concerto from scratch, or whether he corrected and amended
a draft arrangement by another musician. In the main, it sounds
like Brahms to me. This version certainly does not cast the
second piano as a replacement for the orchestra, but uses it
as a flexible foil to the solo piano. At one moment you could
be listening to a concerto, the next a transcribed symphony,
then a sonata for two pianos or, in the slow movement, a free
rhapsody. The superfluous final rumble from the “orchestral”
piano after the “soloist’s” final cadence at the end of the
rondo seems to be a miscalculation, though. Surely this was
the idea of someone other than Brahms.
is a great deal of thought and a sense of the epic to Matthies’
and Köhn’s performance of the concerto. Theirs is a reading
of pregnant storm clouds rather than lightning and whirling
tempest, but what they lack in the mercurial they make up in
the reflective. Careful attention to dynamics, moderate use
of rubato and firm fingers on the keys bring details in the
arrangement to life. Tempi are measured, and rubato generous.
Overall, their performance has a dark-wood sonority, which reminded
me of the immensity and grandeur of Claudio Arrau's flawed performance
with Giulini and the Philharmonia on EMI (Rouge et Noire 0724357532624).
and Köhn’s deliberate tempi in the first movement at times approach
ponderousness. The concerto’s orchestral introduction is divided
between the two pianos, with the thematic material tossed about
from one keyboard to the other like a ferry on a rough crossing
from Calais. When the solo piano finally enters, the effect
is hushed and magical. The darkness of the serried ranks of
trills melts into shafts of sunlight and shades of longing.
is loveliness in the slow movement. The solo pianist has the
run of proceedings and accompaniment is used sparingly. From
the outset, the feel is rhapsodic and free, with phrases given
plenty of breathing space. The descending suspensions from
about 2:45 into the slow movement almost sound like Rachmaninov
here. This is a slow movement that ebbs, flows and sighs.
rondo finale could start with more spark, but moves along well
enough to bring the performance to a satisfying close.
coupling is an interesting choice. According to Keith Anderson’s
excellent liner notes, Joachim wrote over fifty pieces during
his fifteen years as concertmaster to the Hanoverian court.
His Demetrius Overture was the second of four concert
overtures he penned during this time. It was dedicated to Franz
Liszt and betrays something of his countryman’s influence, an
influence which Brahms’ arrangement does not obscure in the
slightest. It is a “hero” overture, with the hero’s motif stated
with pomp in the opening bars, and following him on his chromatic
wanderings and adventures, as he gets himself into dramatic
minor key scrapes and emerges, eventually, chastened but victorious.
It is not a masterpiece, but is worth a hearing.
recorded sound is warm and clear, with the two pianos balanced
antiphonally left and right.
would happily recommend this four hand recording of concerto
to Brahms lovers who know the original well. The Joachim overture
is a great bonus.