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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Behind the notes: Brahms performed by colleagues and pupils
see end of review for details
rec. 1903-52
ARBITER 160 [79:36]

Experience Classicsonline

The continued appearance of pre-war radio recordings never fails to excite the collector of historic material. This one was carried off by the Red Army in 1945 as war booty. Much of this booty was only returned to Germany in 1988 but as Allan Evans of Arbiter comments, there are almost certainly more artefacts in Moscow, or elsewhere, that have yet to be made available.
The pianist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto is Alfred Hoehn in a performance given with the distinguished Max Fiedler in 1936. This is historically important for all sorts of reasons. Hoehn only made a few recordings: three of Chopin and one Scarlatti-Tausig, a very meagre discography indeed for the Thuringian pianist who took first prize at the 1910 Anton Rubinstein Competition in St Petersburg, where he beat a certain Arthur Rubinstein into second place. Hoehn had earlier studied with Lazzaro Uzielli in Frankfurt, as had Cyril Scott (the English composer dedicated his Piano Sonata No.1 to Hoehn) before going on to Busoni and d’Albert in Berlin. Both Hoehn and Fiedler knew Fritz Steinbach, Brahms’s esteemed colleague in Frankfurt. Thus, whilst one wouldn’t wish to elevate it unreasonably, there is a strong sense of association, lineage and cultural self-awareness involved in this milieu.
The performance is a remarkable one in many ways. It enshrines considerable rhythmic latitude, with elasticity an aesthetic prerequisite. The first movement has notable breadth as well, with Fiedler powerfully applying downbeats and slowing rhetorically for the pianist’s first entry, a moment of real raptness in this performance. This fascinatingly discursive tapestry, non-linear and often introspective, is also imbued with strength. Though it’s certainly not brisk, indeed it’s one of the slower performances you’ll encounter (in the opening movement at least) it all sounds structurally comprehensible. The slow movement is very expressively shaped, indeed limpid in places. Hoehn was famed for his poetic and quiet playing and if this is a true reflection, then those critical comments are quite right. Fortunately the piano is quite forwardly recorded so one can admire Hoehn’s desynchronous chording, as one can in the Rondo finale where dynamics are again shaped with constant variation, from a whisper to a roar. So, indeed, this is a restoration of real significance.
With the exception of Joachim’s much reissued 1903 recording of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor, the rest of the programme consists of previously unissued piano music. All the pianists are important and were part of Brahms’s circle. Etelka Freund was coached by Brahms when she was studying in Vienna. These two Op.76 performances date from 1951 when she was 72 and preserve her ‘swung’ rhythm and singing tone. Carl Friedberg also plays the same Intermezzo that Freund does, but in a very different way, a touch brisker and more colour-consciously. This 1949 live performance is rather scuffy. Better recorded is the early Scherzo in E flat where we can hear a marvellously fluent and exciting private performance. Brahms once said of the young Ilona Eibenschutz that ‘She is the pianist I best like to hear playing my works’. She made a few, very rare and sought after discs in 1903, the same year as Joachim’s discs, but wasn’t to be heard again until private recordings were made of her playing. She recorded the Ballade in B, and three Intermezzi, to go with those 1903 sides of the Ballade in G minor and two waltzes. Her playing, half a century on, is inevitably more laboured, but it shows the Brahms (and Clara Schumann) lineage surviving well into the second half of the twentieth century, and is paramount stylistic interest.
This is a most accomplished and historically significant disc. The notes are excellent and transfers assured.
Jonathan Woolf  

Track listing and performance details
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 (1854-58) [48:25]
Alfred Hoehn (piano)/Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Max Fiedler, rec. October 1936 (concerto)

Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op.76 No.1 (1878) [3:02]: Intermezzo in A flat, Op.76 No.3 (1878) [1:59]
Etelka Freund (piano) rec. August 1951

Intermezzo in A flat, Op.76 No.3 (1878) [1:44]: Scherzo in E flat minor, Op.4 (1851) [9:19]
Carl Friedberg (piano) rec. c.1949 and 1951

Ballade in B, Op.10 No.4 (1854) [3:53]: Intermezzo in B flat, Op.76 No.4 (1878) [1:55]: Intermezzo in B minor, Op.119 No.2 (1892) [3:31]: Intermezzo in C, Op.119 No.3 (1892) [1:17]
Ilona Eibenschutz (piano) rec. c. 1952

Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor [3:10]
Joseph Joachim (violin) rec. August 1903

Masterwork Index: Brahms piano concerto 1

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