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.
Masterwork Index: Brahms
piano concerto 1