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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 [48:11]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 [26:48]
Bruno Leonardo Gelber (piano)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Franz-Paul Decker
rec. June 1965, B|rgerbrdu, München (op. 15), November 1975, Salle Wagram, Paris (Op. 24)
ERATO 2564 635354 [74:59]

The Argentinean pianist Bruno Leonardo Gelber was born in 1941. At the age of seven, he was stricken with poliomyelitis and confined to bed for a year. This didn't prevent him, at the age of twenty, from winning a scholarship to travel to Paris to study with the great pedagogue Marguerite Long. That same year, 1961, he won third prize in the Long-Thibaud Competition. His subsequent concert career has taken him all over the world though, unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to hear him live.
A few months ago I reviewed Gelber in a live recording of the Brahms First Concerto from 1963, with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, under Gerd Albrecht on the Audite label. I was struck by the way Gelber employs his prodigious artistry to deliver something of real stature. There's tremendous energy with Albrecht providing sympathetic support and sustaining the tension throughout. I also commented that the dramatic and the lyrical were aptly realized, and the performance suitably paced, with both soloist and conductor having a clear understanding of the work's towering architecture. It would be interesting to compare this live traversal with the studio performance we have here.
Brahms composed his First Piano Concerto at the age of twenty-five in 1858, and gave the first performance a year later in Hanover, Germany. The work had a lengthy gestation, starting as a symphony, then a sonata for two pianos, and finally as a concerto in the form we know it today. It is large in scale and the piano and the orchestra take on equal roles. Here is Brahms as both a young man and red-blooded romantic.
This Munich performance is epic and monumental, Olympian in stature. Gelber's technical command is awesome. Exquisite handling and voicing of chords, coupled with judicious use of pedal for tonal colour, all add up to a pretty impressive achievement. The whole reading is classical in approach, rather than what some would term romantic. The dramas are played out, throughout, with an eye on the whole narrative.
The second movement is beautifully realized, with the Munich strings playing with richness and warmth. In the third movement, the orchestra responds well to Decker's inspirational conducting to deliver an energized and vital performance.
Sound quality between the Audite version from two years earlier and what we have here is negligible, all the more surprising as the performance under Albrecht was recorded live and not under studio conditions. Interpretively the performances are not poles apart. However, if I had to lay my cards on the table, I would want the Audite version to take to my desert island. It is marginally more spontaneous, with the performers being inspired by the live event to give just that little bit extra.
The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 for solo piano were composed in 1861. It comprises twenty-five variations and a concluding fugue on a theme from Handel's Keyboard Suite No. 1 in B flat major, HWV 434. Brahms dedicated the work to his beloved friend, Clara Schumann. Gelber's is a compelling reading, where each variation relates logically to that which precedes and proceeds it. There is thus a sense of inevitability in the cumulative approach which Gelber achieves. With excellent dynamic control and phrasing, the subtle changes in tempi between the variations are calculated to produce a unified and integrated performance. For me, this stands side by side with other great versions such as those by Perahia and Fleisher. My only quibble is that I would have preferred each variation to have been tracked separately, rather than be allocated to one.
These recordings have been issued before, both in this identical format by EMI in 2005, and as a more desirable double CD set including the second concerto with Rudolf Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, together with some of the solo piano works in 1993. This has long been deleted, but would have constituted a more desirable reissue. I suspect the second concerto and solo pieces will follow on fairly soon. Fingers crossed.
Stephen Greenbank
Masterwork Index: Brahms piano concerto 1