Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor op. 15 [50:30]
Franz LISZT (1811–1886)
Trois odes funčbres S. 112: Les Morts – Oraison [9:25]; La Notte [11:45]; Le triomphe funčbre du Tasse [8:56]
Sándor Falvai (piano)
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra/Zoltán Kocsis
rec. 13–17 June, 20 July 2016, Phoenix Studio, Diósd, Hungary
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 143332 [50:30 + 30:06]

When I asked to review this set, I was unaware that these recordings, made in the summer of 2016, would be one of the last made by the pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis before his untimely death in December 2016.  This adds extra poignancy to the music recorded on CD2, namely the Trois odes funčbres but more of this later on.

From the outset and on my initial listening, I should say that this is the sort of Brahms recording I like – powerful, majestic and sweepingly grandiose. The first concerto benefits from this treatment as at the time, Brahms was trying to make a name for himself and the concerto (as is well known) cost him a great deal of time. It was rewritten several times before being published in the version which we know. The first movement is long – the average time taken for it is between 20 and 25 minutes but here it plays in just over 24 minutes. From the start, it is clear that both the conductor and the pianist know exactly what they want to say and know how to say it. The opening D minor chord is very menacing and positively growls with power. The main theme (in the strings) around 1:30 sounds melancholic and is very well shaped. The piano introduction, at 4:08, is restrained but builds the tension nicely for the various explosions later in the movement. There is also some very nice integration of the orchestral texture and the soloist which to me indicates what a fine conductor Zoltán Kocsis was. Neither he nor the soloist, Sándor Falvai put a finger wrong throughout this long and complex movement which holds together extremely well. Falvai is a very powerful pianist and has a very determined way of playing – not in a bad way at all but just an absolute certainty as to what he is playing and why. It’s also clear, in the sections where he is accompanied, that this combination of forces works very well together. The movement continues apace with various developments and key changes eventually leading to a large climactic section at 11:32 where the home key is again re-established. For me, this is the pivotal part of this movement and if you spoil this bit, the whole concerto loses shape. However, this does not happen here. After this, both soloist and orchestra bounce the main theme between one-another with various difficult passagework for the pianist and some powerful accompaniment from the orchestra. The stormy section at about 14:00, which leads into the playful theme for all the forces, is especially well played. This leads into another explosive climax for the whole ensemble where Brahms cleverly brings back the main theme - this time in E major. This ultimately leads to a very well judged section for solo piano, marked Poco piu moderato and this is wonderfully phrased. There is plenty of work for the soloist here. There is an atmosphere of serenity after this for a few moments before the tension builds up with octave passages for the soloist interspersed with outbursts for the orchestra. This leads up to the closing pages of the movement. The ending is suitably powerful and very well done by all and defiantly reminds us that the work is in D minor.

Next follows the large and serene Adagio – supposedly a portrait of Clara Schumann. This also has the same sadness as that which underpins the first movement, despite being in a major key. This feeling is nicely understated here and there are moments of beauty – especially at the start of the movement before the piano comes in. When the piano does enter, around 1:35, the pacing is perfect and there is an atmosphere of the music being firmly rooted, as there was in the first movement. The woodwinds also have some wonderful parts to play and are very well integrated into the piano part. This pianist really knows when to listen to those who are accompanying him and he reacts accordingly. There is some lovely interplay between the piano and the full orchestra especially from 9:14 and towards the end. Here the pianist plays powerful chords, trills and arpeggios along with the full orchestra, all held together with some very masterful conducting. Following this, the tension winds down nicely before a solo outburst at about 11:00. The movement then moves towards a quiet and reflective end, in a similar fashion to where it started some 13 minutes earlier. This is music that it is easy to lose yourself in, especially when it is played as well as it is here.

The finale, a Rondo, starts with a powerful entry for the piano and the orchestra soon joins in. The overall character of the movement is slightly more positive than the first movement probably because it is working towards being in D major rather than the minor. The whole first part of the movement remains defiantly in the minor but there is a radiance to Falvai’s playing around 6:36 when sunlight seems to break through the clouds briefly before the darkness reasserts itself. As before, the orchestra and pianist do a super job throughout – especially in the transitional sections between the component parts of the movement. The key only begins to change in the cadenza part around 10:00 – this is especially good and serves as a link to the closing part of the movement. The ending is loud, powerful and defiantly happy and very well done.

The clarity on this recording is excellent – although I have been familiar with this work for years, the details really do stand out to good effect and there are numerous minutiae I’d not managed to spot before. This applies in the case of both the orchestral and the piano parts. Overall, there is some wonderful playing here by all concerned and I am very pleased to have got to know this fine recording. I’ve heard many CDs of this work and I feel that the tempi and performances here are just about spot on - I shall be spinning this disc often.

The second disc contains some much rarer and more unusual works – Liszt’s Trois odes funčbres (S112). I’ve been familiar with these for some time, initially in their piano solo arrangement but latterly in the orchestral versions, as recorded here. For those interested in Liszt’s alternative take on the same musical idea, the second of these pieces also exists in a version for violin and piano, S.377a. It's superbly played on "Liszt: Works for Violin and Piano" (complete) on Hungaroton HCD31879-80.

There is a statement at the beginning of the cover notes which states that this is the original version of the first of these three pieces (Les Morts – Oraison). What we hear follows the autograph manuscript which is significantly different to the other versions which have been recorded. The overall effect makes the music sound much more closely related to the ‘Magnificat’ section of the Dante Symphony – strikingly similar in fact. However, this is a perfectly judged performance of a rare and unusual piece containing much music of interest. I actually prefer this to the other recordings I have heard as the lack of chorus actually helps the orchestral details to be more clearly heard. The second of the three pieces began life as Il penseroso from the second Années de Pelerinage volume 2 (S161) before being expanded and orchestrated. The whole atmosphere at the beginning is one of sombre reflection and Liszt uses novel orchestration effects to achieve his required sounds. The central section is much lighter and less sombre with some lovely effects on the strings. Again, this is a wonderful recording of another all too rarely heard piece. Lastly, follows the sequel to the second of Liszt’s Symphonic Poems – Tasso. It is entitled Le triomphe funčbre du Tasse and serves as a much later reflection on the themes found in the symphonic poem. I have never heard a recording which makes the link between the earlier piece quite so obvious – it really is very clear. This is a good thing as some recordings take this work at a too sedate pace which means that it loses integrity and consequently falls apart. That is not the case here or in the whole sequence of these works. The atmosphere of this piece works through a series of episodes leading from darkness into light with a hint of heroism built in (similar to Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung) and this is very well controlled here. Overall, this is wonderful stuff – another disc which will be played frequently.

To sum up, this is a brilliant recording by all concerned of both the Brahms and the much more rarely played Liszt. This set also serves as a fitting tribute to the pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis.

Jonathan Welsh

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