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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Concerto Album
CD 1
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, op.15 (1859) [51:28]
Tragic Overture op.81 (1880) [13:11]
CD 2
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83 (1881) [50:32]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn op.56a (1873) [18:43]
CD 3
Violin Concerto in D, op.77 (1879) [40:43]
Double Concerto in A minor, op.102 (1887) [32:56]
Claudio Arrau (piano); David Oistrakh (violin); Pierre Fournier (cello); Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini (op.15, op.81, op.83, op.56a); Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion Française/Otto Klemperer (op.77); Philharmonia Orchestra/Alceo Galliera (op.102)
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 21-23 April 1960 (op.15); Kingsway Hall, London, 12 October and 12 November 1962 (op.81); No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 21-22 April 1962 (op.83); Kingsway Hall, London, 25-26 January 1961 (op.56a); Salle Wagram, Paris, 17-19 June 1960 (op.77); Kingsway Hall, London, 29 February and 2-3 March 1956 (op.102)
EMI CLASSICS 5094212 [64:39 + 69:15 + 73:39]
Experience Classicsonline

At first glance this is a 3-disc set that aims to do, in the words of the well-known slogan for wood preservative, “exactly what it says on the tin.”
It is undeniably a neat and economical way to collect Brahms’s concertante works, along with some useful orchestral fillers. 
The set is, one imagines, aimed at new collectors – even though it takes a considerable leap of faith to imagine that said novices would (1) venture into buying all the concertos at once without dipping an exploratory toe into the water first, and (2) eschew today’s heavily-hyped glamorous soloist/conductor teams in favour of artists recorded almost half a century ago, some now only dimly recalled.  No letters of complaint, please, from the five remaining members of the Alceo Galliera Appreciation Society.
Convincing proof that those responsible for putting this set together were aware of a potential problem in frightening off classical music newbies may be found on the outside of the box where, avoiding any mention of when the recordings were originally made, some very small lettering advises that the dates are “as stated in the booklet”. 
But perhaps the marketing men have aimed this set at the wrong target altogether.  More knowledgeable collectors will, after all, be aware that these recordings share in common not just the composer but also the characteristic input of the man who caused every single one of them to be set down for posterity in the first place – Walter Legge.
Of all producers active in the 1950s and 1960s, Legge has, arguably, left the longest lasting legacy.  His consummate talent for matching artists both with each other and with appropriate repertoire helped create a body of work that is probably just as much appreciated today as it was fifty years ago.
In many ways, too, these recordings’ characteristically warm and smooth sound adds to the impression that these are essentially well-upholstered, “comfortable” performances, more likely to reinforce feelings of contentment and well-being than to challenge any musical preconceptions.
Arrau’s survey of the two piano concertos is very fine and was in no way superseded by his later recordings with Haitink.  His low-key entry after Giulini’s lowering introduction to the first concerto is, indeed, so discreet and delicate that I actually played it again to confirm that he hadn’t in fact missed the first note altogether!  There is some exquisitely beautiful playing here as Arrau gives the impression of spontaneously thinking his way into the music for the first time, an approach that pays particular dividends in an especially rapt account of the central Adagio.  His distinctively light touch means, too, that the finale becomes playful rather than, as is so often the case, merely forceful.
Although recorded two years later, the second concerto embodies a very similar approach and it is clear that, when it comes to Brahms, Arrau and Giulini see very much eye to eye.  While that may mean that the last element of creative tension may be missing from their partnership, many listeners will consider the resultant artistic gains as more than adequate compensation.  Giulini’s delicate, dreamy opening of the first movement sets the tone, though neither he nor Arrau shrinks from more declamatory passages.  Once again, the slow movement makes an especially strong impression, assisted by a brief but telling contribution from cellist Raymond Clark.
David Oistrakh has something worth saying about the Brahms violin concerto in virtually every one of his many studio and live recordings and, partnered with Klemperer in Paris - and so perhaps unsurprisingly - chooses on this occasion to emphasise the work’s innate strength and power.  Personally, I prefer the greater vivacity and spontaneity he demonstrated just three years later in a live concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kondrashin (BBC Legends BBCL 4197-2), but the more severe Paris account holds up well and is a perfectly valid approach to the work on its own terms.
Oistrakh also has the rare distinction of having two accounts of the same work – Brahms’s too infrequently heard Double Concerto – in EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series (3457582 - see review).  One of them (supposedly Oistrakh’s favourite of his four recordings) is that with cellist Pierre Fournier, now included in this new set of discs.  With an elegance of approach typical of Fournier and very well played, it certainly fits the overall tone of this reissue better than its GROC rival, the justly famous 1969 Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Szell recording (EMI 5669022).  And though I do miss the sheer seat-of-the-pants excitement generated by the latter, I can understand why, on this occasion, the Oistrakh/Fournier/Galliera version was selected instead.
In his orchestral fillers, Giulini also exhibits an exquisite eye for detail and emphasises – especially in the Haydn variations – a number of often overlooked felicities in the score.  Once again, downplaying the music’s more dramatic elements fits well into the overall artistic conception on which this collection appears to be based.
The Philharmonia (predictably) and the Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion Française (a pleasant surprise) are both in excellent form throughout and the digitally remastered sound (though one man’s “warmth” can certainly be another man’s “tubbiness”) is representative of analogue recording at its best.
Erik Levi’s notes offer a sound introduction to the music but, in a rare glitch for EMI proofreaders, the Piano Concerto No.2’s Allegro appassionato becomes an Adagio appassionato – a careless lapse on an otherwise extremely well thought out and produced reissue.
Rob Maynard


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