It is curious that this disc, by a British
label and featuring a German orchestra, an Estonian conductor
and an American pianist, should be aimed the French market, especially
given Brahms' reception there, which is nicely summed up in the
liner-otes by a quote from Debussy "Let's leave, he's about
to start the development."
In fact, Nicholas Angelich is a long-time resident of France and has a considerable following there. And while this may seem a risky proposition - I could be forgiven for playing things safe considering their current finances - it follows a commercially successful and critically acclaimed recording from the same pianist of Brahms' First Concerto.
The Second is a very different work, with very different, not to say more numerous, interpretive challenges. Both concertos are long and both are more symphonic than most composers’ essays in the medium. But the First is a youthful work, in a clearly delineated form and with fairly open orchestral textures. The Second is much later and in many ways more radical. It is a work that the pianist must absolutely dominate, not to the extent of overpowering the orchestra - surely a physical impossibility here - but rather through his lines and textures leading those of the orchestra.
That doesn't quite happen, and I'm not sure why. The sound engineering may be to blame, although the clarity of both piano and orchestra suggest otherwise. Angelich seems content to be an equal partner with the orchestra. So at the opening, it is as if he is accompanying the solo horn, and by the time the first orchestral tutti starts he has lost the limelight for good.
The performance is quite four-square, with a surprising lack of rubato. One result of this is that the tuttis in the outer movements are stripped of some of their bombast. To my ear, that is no bad thing, but think of Brahms, doing everything in his power to add something to Beethoven’s canon and yet repeatedly resorting to excess. Angelich seems intent on reining the work back to Beethovenian dimensions.
The orchestral playing is good without being exceptional. Paavo Järvi is sensitive to Angelich's approach, and delivers a similarly disciplined, almost Classical, orchestral environment for the soloist. The third movement Andante is where it all finally comes together, and the orchestra's string and woodwind soloists set the atmosphere beautifully for Angelich's light, flowing cantabile lines. His disciplined approach really comes into its own here, and combines wonderfully with a delicacy of touch that is all too rare.
The Klavierstücke Op.76 are hardly a filler, clocking in at over 25 minutes. Again, Angelich avoids indulgence and gives clear precise readings. The recording was made in the same concert hall-cum-radio studio (the hr-Sendesaal in Frankfurt) as the concerto, and while it is fine for the orchestral recording, it causes a severe loss of intimacy in the solo music. The piano is in a resonant acoustic and, I think, miked at a distance. The round, slightly opaque, piano sound that results would be ideal for some pianists, but not this one, his art depending so much on clarity and directness of expression.
The many people who bought Angelich's previous Brahms instalment will probably know what to expect, and perhaps the programming here is designed specifically for them, with the Second Concerto continuing the First's symphonic tendencies and Op.76 continuing on from its chamber-like textures. Angelich is a brave man even to contemplate the Second Concerto, and his recording is a welcome addition to a discography that ought by rights to be a good deal more substantial. But this is definitely a recording for those who like their Brahms measured and precise. If you want some real drama, you would probably be better off tracking down Ashkenazy or Pollini.