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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No. 1, in D minor, Op. 15 (1858)
Ekaterina Litvintseva (piano)
Klassiche Philharmonie Bonn/Heribert Beissel
rec. live, 29 November 2017, Theater Meppen, Meppen, Germany PROFILPH18065 [48:52]
This Brahms masterpiece is one of the more symphonic concertos in the repertory, not least because the young composer originally conceived it as a symphony. The work begins with a long orchestral introduction. so let’s first take a look at the orchestra and its role here. The Klassiche Philharmonie Bonn, founded in 1986 as the Chur C÷lniches Orchester by its permanent director Heribert Beissel, is an ensemble consisting of about sixty players. For this performance there may have been slightly fewer than that number present, if I can judge from a promotional video excerpt posted at YouTube. Thus, most seasoned listeners will immediately notice the difference in their less imposing, more transparent sound when compared with recordings by more prominent standard-sized orchestras, like the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony or Chicago Symphony, all of whom have made numerous recordings of this work. Still, this newer ensemble never come across as scrawny or under-powered; rather, they sound spirited and muscular, if a bit lean.
The concerto’s introduction should be dramatic and intense, and that’s how it comes across here. Yet, the strings perform with less vehemence and less of a tendency to slash away emphatically, instead playing with an animated, somewhat curt manner, not quite underscoring the supposedly dark and pressing nature of the music. Still, that approach works very well in this live performance, giving the music a lift while retaining the sense of tension and urgency. Brahms was only twenty-five when he completed the concerto, and some of the work’s material dates back to four years earlier. Would such a young man already be filled with pessimism, doubt, tragedy? Admittedly, its time of composition came during the disturbing period in which his friend, fellow composer Robert Schumann attempted suicide and was then committed to an asylum where he died two years later (1856). Yet, while the work almost certainly deals with these difficulties to some degree, it can be, and has been, viewed as the expression of a positive resolution of them. Indeed, I clearly hear a more optimistic, or at least a more youthful. take on the music from the orchestra here.
But, of course, concertos also involve a soloist, and the one we have here can be described as a very talented rising star. Ekaterina Litvintseva (b. 1986; Magadan, Russia) has performed many times previously with this conductor and his orchestra, and recorded the two Chopin concertos and the Mozart Concertos 9 & 12 with them, also for the Profil label. Thus, she has plenty of experience with this team and clearly demonstrates a good rapport with them. But it’s a bit of a surprise that her meatier. deeper approach here actually fits into their brighter one quite well. Litvintseva has a weighty, quite imposing tone: try the octave passage that opens the first movement development section, or notice how her bass notes ring out above the orchestra in the finale’s coda. Even her first movement entry is comparatively full-throated alongside so many other performances.
Furthermore, with generally moderate tempos, she probes beneath the surface seeking a greater expressive depth and greater profundity: in her deftly nuanced and very sensitive phrasing she imparts a sort of reverential character to much of the second movement, which is of course a typical approach. She regards the music in this panel as suggesting “a devout believer at prayer” in some passages, as she reveals in a lengthy interview contained in the album booklet. From 8:46, for example, she plays the beautiful climactic chords with a cushioned grandeur, her tone warm and velvety, never sounding triumphant or lordly, but rather conveying what one might hear as a sort of spiritual epiphany. (However, Brahms, it should be remembered, wasn’t much of a believer.)
To sum up this performance, then, her first movement is powerful, epic and imaginatively phrased, while the second is just as imposing, though in a more profound and intimate way. The finale is lively, muscular and brilliantly played. Litvintseva has a very formidable technique, fully up to the demands of this difficult concerto. In the end, she is not at odds with the conductor or orchestra at all; rather, her bigger and more thoughtful approach allows the piano to stand out subtly in ways you normally don’t notice in most other performances.
However, the orchestra is never relegated to a secondary role: they are rarely if ever unduly reticent and typically play with spirit and great sensitivity to the emotional and intellectual flow of the music. Moreover, Profil affords them vivid, closeup sound reproduction, allowing you to hear much meaningful detail. Conductor Heribert Beissel, of course, must also be credited for the good results here as he draws quite accurate playing from the orchestra and elucidates the various orchestral layers, generally in proper proportion. The one exception is that the brass sometimes play with an outsized imbalance, standing out in the sound field somewhat out of proportion to other instruments and orchestral sections. But this is rarely a problem. The piano, a Steinway, which is also closely miked, sounds magnificent. The audience remains generally quiet.
As for the competition, there are two other performances that stand out to me: from more than a half-century ago, Rubinstein/Reiner (RCA) and from 2013, Grimaud/Nelsons (DG). That’s an imposing pair and there are many others too, including Serkin, Brendel and Kovacevich. This new one by Litvintseva, though, is certainly a splendid effort, especially considering its live origins. Among recent Brahms Firsts, it’s quite outstanding, and it holds up well even against the older classic performances. Its only drawback is the somewhat paltry disc timing of 48:52: there was room for a half dozen or so solo Brahms piano pieces as fillers.