Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [45.30]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 81 (1878/81) [46.59]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, June 2011 (No. 1); January 2013 (No. 2) Semperoper, Dresden
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 3985 [45.30 + 46.59]

This Deutsche Grammophon release comprises live recordings of Maurizio Pollini playing both of the Brahms piano concertos at the Semperoper, Dresden. The eminent Milanese pianist first played with the Staatskapelle Dresden as far back as 1976, returning regularly until 1986. It was Christian Thielemann who invited Pollini to play with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2011 after a gap of twenty years and thus make his first ever appearance at Semperoper. Pollini has recorded the Brahms concertos twice before on Deutsche Grammophon. His first recordings were conducted by Karl Böhm (No. 1) in 1980 and Claudio Abbado (No. 2) in 1977 with the Wiener Philharmoniker at Vienna. Later Pollini also recorded both concertos live with Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Musikverein Vienna in 1998 (No. 1) and at Berlin in 1997 (No. 2).

Brahms started writing his three movement First Piano Concerto in 1854 around the time of the suicide attempt by his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. It was Brahms’s first large-scale work for orchestra and had its origins in the first movement of a Sonata in D minor for Two pianos. It would be another seventeen years before Brahms completed his First Symphony. The D minor Piano Concerto was introduced in January 1859 at Hanover with Brahms as soloist and Joseph Joachim conducting.

The Staatskapelle Dresden under Thielemann provide a thrilling orchestral introduction to commence the massive and dramatic first movement Maestoso. It absolutely pulsates with drama. One immediately notices how Pollini strikes the keys with fluidity and everything is shaped with absolute care. The glorious lyrical theme with Pollini playing alone is so spine-tingling, so intimate. Also striking is the rock-solid playing throughout from both soloist and orchestra. In the Adagio Pollini provides captivating playing of a meditative, almost reverential, quality. The final movement, a Rondo - Allegro non troppo, sees Pollini playing the syncopated rhythms with vibrancy and astutely bringing out the nervous anxiety of the writing. Playing with total assurance and deep concentration overall Pollini creates a sense of awe that feels completely engaging. Recorded live in June 2011 at the Semperoper Pollini was given a standing ovation.

After the First Piano Concerto it was more than twenty-two years before Brahms completed his Second Piano Concerto. 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 score was completed in January 1881 and premièred in November that year in Budapest under the baton of Alexander Erkel with Brahms as soloist. Cast in four movements, the Second Piano Concerto is very different from the First. It is more symphonic in nature with the soloist more integral to the orchestra, yet it is just as challenging for performers.

Using the wisdom of many years’ experience throughout, Pollini is able to convey considerable tone colour and still communicate a sense of spontaneity. The short weeping horn solo which opens the score is impressive and beautifully in tune. The terse and rather angry piano part of the opening movement, Allegro non troppo, is interpreted alertly by Pollini in a performance of deep concentration. The sensation of tension generated by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Thielemann is striking, with an elevated degree of drama in the coda. Pollini, with seemingly effortless technical command, provides impressive dynamics in the stormy writing of the Scherzo. There’s also a masterly rubato that feels utterly instinctive. Thielemann ensures that the orchestral section at the conclusion conveys breathtaking excitement. In the Andante the song-like cello solo imbued with melancholy is gloriously played by the section concertmaster. Pollini’s sense of introspection is extraordinary, with engrossingly poetic playing imbued with a sense of yearning, which contrasts beautifully with the unsettling and windswept conversation of the writing. In Pollini’s hands the finale, Allegretto grazioso, is uplifting and buoyant, while the Staatskapelle Dresden also revel in such joyful writing. So firmly assured, Pollini makes short work of the broad rhythmic contrasts and the splendid succession of memorable themes. Throughout, Pollini’s playing feels so fresh and fluid, providing impressive lyricism and a wide palette of colour.

The Pollini set includes an interesting booklet essay titled ‘The Return of a Piano Legend’ by Tobias Niederschlag. Recorded live in the marvellous acoustic of the Semperoper, Dresden the sound engineers excel and provide a reasonably close recording with excellent detail and balance.

With the world class Staatskapelle Dresden these are masterful Brahms performances by Pollini full of intensity and character. They can stand firmly alongside my principal recommendations which are the evergreen accounts from the eminent American pianist Leon Fleisher with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Georg Szell. Recorded four years apart in 1958 (No. 1) and 1962 (No. 2) Fleisher was in his early to mid-thirties when he made these stereo recordings, majestic performances which have great drama and poetic slow movements. Fleisher is well paced in the faster movements with a wide range of dynamic and significant power. Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio and although not perfect in terms of clarity and balance I have no major reservations over the sound in either of the concertos. Fleisher’s accounts were first released on the CBS Epic label and have been reissued on Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage.

Michael Cookson

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