Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
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. Stereo/multi-channel
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.
Dan Morgan
A worthy experiment, albeit a flawed one.