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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881) [49:46]
Nelson Goerner (piano)
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. live, Tokyo, May 20, 2009
ALPHA CLASSICS 395 [49:46]

Pianist Nelson Goerner takes a somewhat scaled-down approach to the Brahms Second here, with a fairly straightforward, rather suave approach and slightly brisk tempos. It’s almost as if the chamber-like character of the third movement spills over to one degree or another into the other three here to rein in the overall epic demeanor of the work. I’m not sure that Goerner was attempting to portray the work quite that way, but that’s how the performance strikes this listener and probably how it will likely come across to most Brahms aficionados. Oddly enough, the generally serene and steady character of the music in this account seems at odds with the performance’s origins: it was taken from a single live concert in Tokyo on May 20, 2009. I suppose there could have been touch-up sessions afterwards, but I can’t hear any edit splices to suggest that possibility.

There was not much electricity in the air then, nor did the soloist sound at all under pressure. The audience clearly loved the performance though, as you can notice from the enthusiastic applause included at the end of the CD. Goerner is remarkably accurate, if not perfect, considering the circumstances, and he never sounds cautious or coldly calculating. In the end, one must observe that this performance is not at all bleached of spirit or lacking in colour in any significant way. It’s merely a more human and less epic Brahms, a vital, if slightly subdued, Brahms. I suspect the composer might have liked this effort as a valid alternative to the more conventional interpretations of the work.

The first movement isn’t exactly laid back, but it doesn’t have the thrust and bigness you hear in recordings from Serkin/Szell (Sony), Richter/Leinsdorf (RCA), Cliburn/Reiner (RCA) and others. The principal French horn plays beautifully right from the opening and throughout. There’s sufficient drive and muscle in the Scherzo and Goerner delivers a splendid reading of the third movement, abetted by excellent playing from the cellist. This may be the best movement in this performance. The finale begins with a moderate tempo but by the closing pages takes on a fiery character, for once giving the performance a sense of energy and forcefulness.

In the end this Brahms Second must be assessed as a legitimate and perfectly respectable account, though I would favour the ones I mentioned above and in that order. I think the Arrau/Haitink (Decca) and Grimaud/Nelsons (DG) might also be given preference as well. Still, this is a fine performance by Goerner and it features splendid accompaniment by Tadaaki Otaka and the NHK Symphony Orchestra.  Perhaps the greatest drawback is the lack of a filler on this disc, which could have accommodated another thirty minutes of music. The sound reproduction is fine and in fact better than my preferred choices with the exception of the Grimaud/Nelsons. Fans of Nelson Goerner will surely want this, and maybe those looking for a different take on this warhorse concerto.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Marc Bridle


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