Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854-1858) [46:53]
Intermezzo, Op. 119/1 (1892) [3:45]
Hardy Rittner (piano)
l’arte del mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
rec. live, 11-12 February 2011, Bayer Kulturhaus, Leverkusen, Germany.
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM 904 1699-6
Ooh, controversial; beefy Brahms played on an 1854 Érard
and accompanied on authentic instruments. Listeners reared on
a rich diet of Rubinstein, Arrau, Brendel and Kovacevich will
surely baulk at this reduced-fat version, even if the untrimmed
one can be a little indigestible at times. In their liner-notes,
Rittner and Ehrhardt point to an instance in 1858, when Brahms
cancelled the Hamburg premiere of the D minor concerto because
the only usable piano - an Érard - wasn’t available.
I’m not at all convinced that was an endorsement of the
instrument per se; had there been other viable options
I daresay Brahms would have acted differently.
That aside, I’m happy to concede that the period instrument
lobby have played an important part in re-evaluating performance
practices and ridding the core repertoire of unwarranted accretions.
The results are often revelatory - Christopher Hogwood and John
Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven comes to mind - but I’m
less sure of the benefits in Romantic works. Jos van Immerseel’s
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique - which, coincidentally,
uses Érards in place of bells - is a case in point; there’s
remarkable clarity and focus, but the performance itself is
too undernourished for my tastes.
And that was my concern about this Brahms concerto. The Kovacevich/Sawallisch
recording on EMI is a long-time favourite; before that it was
the classic Szell/Curzon on Decca and, my introduction to the
work, the Brendel/Schmidt-Isserstedt on Philips. These pianists
make light of the occasional awkwardness in the score and all
imbue the concerto with a tremendous sense of drive and drama.
The gorgeous, echt-Romantische horns are a notable feature,
and that, too, is a worry, for early versions of the instrument
don’t have the bloom of more modern ones.
Are my doubts at all justified? Well, the opening statement
is certainly bold and very detailed, those excitable trills
especially audible. Ehrhardt and his orchestra find an unusual
degree of inwardness in the passages that follow, leavening
Brahms’s stodgy rhythms as well. The piano’s first
entry is just fine, and very much to scale as it were. Rittner’s
phrasing is straightforward and there’s a pleasing ebb
and flow throughout; as for the orchestra, they’re quite
closely recorded, so individual strands are easily heard. Even
the reduced strings aren’t an issue, although the Érard’s
occasional hollowness of sound is mildly distracting.
I was even more impressed by that pivotal horn entry at 8:58,
ideally distant if not as refulgent as I’d like. Indeed,
one of the undoubted virtues of this recording is the sense
of scale and balance, so the piano is never swamped in the tuttis.
That said, the distinctive Érard sound - at times it’s
a bit ‘plinky’ - is an acquired taste. Still, the
all-important narrative is there, and the recording, although
good, is a little bright in the climaxes; the bass is well-focused,
but rather light. Sadly, the horn calls at the end of the Maestoso
are rather murky, and there are some awkward moments from Rittner
in the closing pages.
The Adagio starts off a little shakily but soon recovers. Listeners
may long for a fuller, more Romantic sound, but I found my ears
adjusted to the leaner textures and timbres quickly enough.
That said, the Érard remains a sticking point; it sounds
rather veiled here - over-damped, even - and that compromises
Brahms’s singing lines. Really, this central movement
is rather disappointing; there’s self-conscious phrasing
from Rittner and the whole performance lacks spontaneity and
lift. And for all the gains in detail and clarity, these performers
can’t quite avoid the Brahmsian bear-traps when it comes
to building structure and shape.
But if the Adagio is underwhelming the rumty-tumty Rondo is
even more so. Rittner is tempted into far too many dead-ends
and, despite Ehrhardt’s constant cajoling, he never finds
his way back. It’s certainly easier to cover the odd fumble
in weightier, ‘traditional’ performance, but in
this unforgiving company there’s no place to hide. And
that’s true of the orchestra as well, for they simply
don’t have the security and/or stamina that this concerto
so clearly demands. There’s no applause - I wasn’t
ever aware of an audience - but there’s an encore in the
shape of a brittle Intermezzo. It’s eminently forgettable,
I’m afraid, and underlines the sense that although this
project starts bravely enough it soon runs out of puff.
A worthy experiment, albeit a flawed one.