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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major, Op.83
Nelson Goerner (piano)
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. live, Tokyo, 20 May 2009
ALPHA CLASSICS 395 [49:46]

I’ve had more than a few conversations with colleagues and friends about the Brahms piano concertos that have resulted in some of them telling me they dislike both works to quite a violent degree. Having listened to Mr Goerner’s performance of Brahms’s Second Concerto a handful of times I don’t imagine it converting any of them – despite the fact it’s a highly unusual, perhaps even radical, reading of the piece. Does it displace recordings I love by Ashkenazy and Klemperer (live at the Royal Festival Hall, 1969), Anda and Karajan (especially in a 1968 Berlin concert), Arrau and Rozhdestventsky in Moscow in 1968 (actually, Arrau and almost anyone), or Sonoda and Asahina (live in Osaka, 1976)? No, but it can happily sit beside them.

This performance has clearly been sat in the archives for quite some time – it dates from a concert given in Tokyo on the 20th May 2009. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it – it’s technically assured, though not as perfect as some others in the catalogue (Richter, or any of the soloists I’ve mentioned above, for example), and is notable for a superb contribution from the NHKSO (the horn and cello solos are exquisite). But neither are there a suitcase full of wrong notes as we get with Edwin Fischer – not that that ever matters when his pianism comes from an entirely different world. Brahms referred to his Second Concerto, with a heavy touch of irony, as a “tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”. It’s never remotely played as a small-scale concerto – quite the opposite, with Olympian weight that looks towards Liszt and Tchaikovsky rather than backwards to Bach or Mendelssohn.

One of the significant ironies of the performance that Otaka and Goerner give is that it is both massive and minimal – that is, it is overwhelmingly symphonic but captures the essence of being like chamber music. I don’t think it is the recording of the piano itself, which is captured with great clarity, but a genuine desire on the part of the pianist to see this concerto as a conversation between the piano and the orchestra. Many performances – the Ashkenazy/Klemperer and Claudio Arrau, with so many of his conductors, was also typical of this approach – level out their approach to the first and second movements so they are identical in approach to the third and fourth movements. In other words, the entire concerto is conceived as a single, massive pianistic statement. I’m not sure Goerner sees Brahms’s Second in this way at all. With him, the music unfolds like a complex origami sculpture with almost infinite possibilities; he and Otaka follow where the music takes them, and that’s often on a highly poetic journey of different scales and volatile emotions.

One would think from the concerto’s opening statement, for example, magnificently played here on the solo horn, that we were in for a very weighty interpretation from the pianist. In fact, it becomes clear very quickly that Goerner’s mercurial touch is taking us back towards the chromaticism of Bach. It’s rare to find such serenity in this movement, but we find it here. It shares with the Edwin Fischer/Furtwängler recording from 1942 a sense of autumnal colour, though the darkness is really supplied by the orchestra not the pianist. Fischer is certainly the weightier of the two pianists, though both bring to the first movement beautiful textures and dynamics. Brahms’s scherzo, of course, is anything but a “tiny, tiny wisp” – it’s seismic in its power, with a torrential force that drives its own steam. I don’t think Goerner is especially impulsive here – in fact, it’s arguable he can feel under-powered. Perhaps the lack of weight in the instrument is partly to blame; one doesn’t feel Goerner is battering the keyboard into submission as some pianists clearly think Brahms intended. The textures are entirely organic, however, but one does feel you are viewing Olympus from the keyboard rather than hearing the Zeusian fingers of an Olympian pianist as you might do with Arrau, for example.

The slow movement is somewhat astonishing, to be honest. This is chamber-music at its best in a concerto that doesn’t always make that distinction a cohesive one. Otaka and Goerner take their time over the movement – but when the outcome is this beautiful and languid, when you really sense the nocturnal shifts in the music, the risk pays off. Many pianists seem to find themselves off-balance in the last movement because it is so much lighter – but because Goerner has avoided being over-weighty elsewhere this movement just seems to follow on naturally from everything else before it. Goerner’s finger-work is exemplary – rising double thirds are assured – and you feel the music is in tempo here, even if it probably hasn’t been elsewhere.

There is something particularly well-thought out about this performance that makes it compelling. Pianists and conductors can often take a very different view of this concerto with the result that the work can feel like two performances rather than a single performance. The intertwining of a narrative between the orchestra and the pianist – the essence of great chamber-music – is particularly strong here, but so, too, is the sense that both Otaka and Goerner are just letting Brahms’s score unfold. It often feels like an event, a rather special experience, but I suspect one that Nelson Goerner would probably play very differently under another conductor and orchestra.

Marc Bridle



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