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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [55:06]
Ballade No. 1 in D minor, from 4 Ballades, Op.10 (1854) [5:27]
Ballade No. 2 in D major from Op.10 (1854) [7:27]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [55:53]
Ballade No. 3 in B minor, from Op.10 (1854) [4:25]
Ballade No. 4 in B major, from Op.10 (1854) [11:29]
Tzimon Barto (piano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. 16-17 October 2012 (Concert No. 1), 3-5 June 2013 (Concerto No. 2), Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, Germany; 14 June 2014 (4 Ballades) Casino Baumgarten, Vienna, Austria
CAPRICCIO C5210 [68:01 + 71:49]

We only rarely see American pianist Tzimon Barto in the UK. However, in 2011 in Berlin I was fortunate to see him playing the Hans Pfitzner Piano Concerto with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann. For Capriccio in 2011 Barto and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Eschenbach collaborated in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. With this new Capriccio release Barto and the same orchestral forces have turned their attention to Brahms’s pair of Piano Concertos together with an account of the Four Ballades for solo piano, Op. 10.

Brahms began work on his three movement Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1854 around the time of the suicide attempt by his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. This is Brahms’s first large-scale work for orchestra. It would be another seventeen years before he completed his First Symphony. The Concerto was first introduced in January 1859 at Hanover with Brahms as soloist and Joseph Joachim conducting. In the present account Eschenbach ensures that the opening Maestoso just throbs with potent energy. He plays with assurance, spirit and fluidity and with a wonderful tenderness when required. The glorious lyrical theme is beautifully played - so delicate and intimate. In the slow movement Barto communicates a searching quality that feels meditative - almost reverential. The Finale is exuberantly played with real purpose. This robustly brings out the nervous anxiety of the writing.

It was more than twenty-two years later before Brahms completed his Piano Concerto No. 2. Much of the writing was undertaken at his Austrian holiday home in the Alpine resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee on the shore of Lake Wörth. The four movement score was completed in January 1881 and premièred in November that year at Budapest under the baton of Alexander Erkel with Brahms as soloist. I was struck by the serious rather petulant tone to the introduction. After the recapitulation Barto’s playing feels fluid and expressive, overflowing with vibrant colour. Bold and confident in the forceful and stormy Scherzo movement, Barto’s technical command seems effortless. In the Andante the cello solo sounds a touch faint even if it does weep with sadness. Barto brings an aching tenderness to the table and slows right down to transmit the most intense yearning. Under Eschenbach’s baton the orchestra in the Finale revels in joyful writing. In response Barto's fresh and expressive playing marvellously suits Brahms’ inspiring lyricism. Throughout both concertos Barto follows his emotions and is not afraid to linger or speed up, or to add or reduce expression where he thinks appropriate rather than where convention dictates. Some listeners may be uncomfortable with this idiosyncratic take but I soon became attuned to this fascinating approach. Barto has the advantage of support from orchestra and conductor who excel in their committed, high calibre playing. The sound quality has a wide dynamic range that requires more volume boost than usual.
My principal choice for the two Brahms Piano Concertos is the set by Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell on Sony Classical ‘Masterworks Heritage’. Recorded in 1958 (No. 1) and 1962 (No. 2) at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, Fleisher gives majestic performances of great drama, poetic in the slow movements, pacy in the faster ones and with judiciously chosen dynamics and plenty of penetration. I also admire the extremely impressive 1972 Berlin accounts from Emil Gilels with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Eugen Jochum on Deutsche Grammophon.

The Four Ballades were written when he was twenty-one. Around this time Brahms’ developing infatuation with Clara Schumann must surely be present in these single movement pieces. With the form of the Ballade Brahms was following in the footsteps of Chopin who had completed his final F Major Ballade just over a decade earlier in 1842/43. I savour this satisfying account of the Ballades by the assured Barto who from start to finish evinces fine musicality. Showing a sense of integrity combined with significant passion he serves the music well. Ballade No. 1 is an emotionally confusing score that Barto unfolds with real sensitivity while Ballade No. 2 is afforded lovely playing that is both expressive and responsive. In the Ballade No. 3 I especially enjoyed the private and almost elusive quality that is communicated and the intensity of concentration he brings to the serious emotions of Ballade No. 4.

The Ballades have the benefit of splendid sound quality. Barto is impressive but he does not displace the classic live account recorded by Gilels in 1975 at Turku Konzerthaus on Deutsche Grammophon. Another excellent account, well worth searching out, is from soloist Grigory Sokolov, recorded live in 1992 at Salle Gaveau, Paris for Naïve.

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Concerto 1 ~~ Concerto 2