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Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in d minor Op.15 (1859) [46:58]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in B-flat, Op.83 (1881) [47:35]
András Schiff (piano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
rec. December 2019, Abbey Road Studios, London. DDD.
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
ECM NEW SERIES 4855770 [46:58 + 47:35]

I am going to be comparatively brief because I wanted to get my appreciation of this excellent recording online as soon as possible; at least one of my colleagues is also planning to review it. In fact, in a busy schedule, I had overlooked it until I was asked to obtain it for review. I’m very pleased that my attention was nudged.

It matters not a whit that I find András Schiff’s attitude to ‘authenticity’ inconsistent – he has his reasons for preferring Bach on the piano and Schubert on the fortepiano – when this recording of the two Brahms concertos, on a restored 1859 Blüthner piano, directed from the keyboard and with an established period-instrument orchestra, is so good that I expect it to be my reference version in future, even in preference to old favourites such as Emil Gilels and Eugen Jochum from 1972 (both concertos, DG Originals 4474462). The DG comes effectively as 2 CDs for 1 and throws in performances of the Fantasies, Op.116, so it has a clear price advantage over the new ECM, which runs to two full-price CDs or downloads and offers no fillers.

Hyperion also run to two CDs, with no fillers, for Stephen Hough and Mark Wigglesworth with the Mozarteum Orchestra (CDA67961: Recording of the Month – review), but that’s offered as a 2-for-1: £10.50 on CD, £8.99 for 16-bit download, or £13.50 for 24-bit download, both with pdf booklet, from From the abundance of recordings, that’s the version I have chosen for comparison; although Hough uses a modern piano, his playing is sensitive and he never over-powers the small-scale orchestra – again, using modern instruments but with a sense of period style dating right back to the time when their predecessors accompanied Géza Anda in Mozart. John Quinn noted the ‘slightly grainy’ sound of the Mozarteum strings, though not as a criticism; in fact, it’s one reason why the Hyperion is the closest that I know in style to the new ECM.

In December 2013 I wrote how impressed I was, especially by Hough’s contribution to that recording, blending the romantic and classical aspects of Brahms’ personality. It was by the merest whisker that I chose the Chandos Hansel and Gretel as my Recording of the Month instead. Listening again, it’s Hough’s contribution to the adagio movement of the First Concerto, where he and the orchestra are in perfect accord, that I still rank his recording so highly. At 13:28, he may seem to be over-working the emotion – Schiff is a little faster at 11:57 – but the result is wonderful, with just a sliver of extra magic by comparison.

Then I listened to Schiff and the OAE again, and that sliver of difference became almost non-existent: there’s perfect accord between soloist and orchestra here, too. It probably helps that Schiff is directing – not that Gilels and Jochum (who give the movement even more time to expand) and Hough and Wigglesworth didn’t also gel very well together. Seen live, Schiff always appears in rapt accord with the music, as does Kyng-Wha Chung; it’s no coincidence that both of these musicians rank very high on my list of favourite performers alongside Janet Baker and Emma Kirkby. (Why is it so long since we had a new recording from Ms Chung?)

Schiff’s piano sounds a trifle dry at times, but I think that very few are likely to be put off by that; more importantly, as it was made close to the time that these concertos were written, and blends with the period-instrument orchestra so well, I imagine that Brahms will be pleased as he drinks yet another cup of that strong celestial coffee. That doesn’t mean that the piano lacks power at the right moment, as on its entry in the first movement of the Second Concerto, where power is intermingled with sensitivity.

The new recording leaves the listener in no doubt that the mature work is the finer concerto, but I’ve always had a soft spot for its predecessor, dating right back to the LP of Rudolf Serkin, the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell which I owned and the Clifford Curzon stereo recording, also with Szell, but with the LSO, that I borrowed from the university record library. The Serkin is now an expensive and booklet-less download-only Sony album on G010001039988I or a Presto Special CD, only a little more, with Schumann and Mendelssohn (SBK48166). The Curzon is also download only, but more reasonable priced and with a coupling, the Franck Symphonic Variations (Decca E4663762). For all his very fine advocacy of No.2, Schiff’s No.1 also leaves me feeling that soft spot just as much as those two classic accounts.

In No.2, it’s the andante – più adagio third movement that makes or breaks a recording for me. It needs to be intense, but not too intense – there are some almost baroque moments – and the interplay between soloist and solo cello – Luise Buchberger here – has to be as well judged as that between the soloists, and between them and the orchestra in Brahms’ Double Concerto. It is. At 10:06, compared with Gilels and Jochum at a much slower 14:04, it may seem that the new recording rushes this movement, but the reality is quite otherwise: all the magic is there. As it is at the intermediate overall tempo adopted by Hough and Wigglesworth (11:53).

All in all, this new recording is not likely to thrust Gilels/Jochum and Hough/Wigglesworth out of my two top versions of these concertos, but it comes very close indeed. The DG recording, excellent in its time, wears its years very lightly, and the Hyperion is available both on CD and in hi-res sound. I listened to the new ECM in 16-bit (wav) format, but that, too, is very good. I also sampled some of the tracks as streamed in 24/96 sound. Both Schiff and Hough in the allegro non troppo rondo finale of No.1 bring the house down, at almost identical tempi, in either format, but both recordings sound just a little fuller in 24-bit.

I held back on Recording of the Month status for the Hyperion, but I can’t deny Recommended status to this new Schiff recording. If you think yourself likely to be averse to Schiff’s return to the sort of sound that Brahms would have heard, you need not be. Try it out first if you can, to reassure yourself; the finale of No.2, starting delicately, even tentatively and ending confidently, should do the trick. I had to listen to that again straight away. If you are still not convinced, or the finances are tight, you need not think Hough on Hyperion and Gilels on DG at all second-best, but Schiff and the OAE now become my version of choice.  There have been some very fine recordings of Brahms recently: David McDade has been praising the B-Records releases of his chamber music - review - review - and four colleagues have sung the praises of Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the Second Symphony - review - review - review - review - but the Schiff concertos are likely to be among my Recordings of the Year.

Brian Wilson

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