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Brahms: Piano Concertos No 1 & 2, Etc / Emanuel Ax, Et Al

Release Date: 01/09/2007 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 703510   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel AxJules Eskin
Conductor:  James LevineBernard Haitink
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chicago Symphony OrchestraBoston Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 28 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Piano Concertos: No. 1 in d; 1 No. 2 in B?. 2 Rhapsodies, op. 79. Intermezzos, op. 117. Pieces for Piano, op. 119 Emanuel Ax (pn); James Levine, cond; 1 Chicago SO; 1 Bernard Haitink, cond; Read more class="SUPER12">2 Boston SO 2 SONY 703510 (2 CDs: 148:26)

When the Brahms Second Concerto with Ax and Haitink first appeared on a full-priced Sony CD in 1999, (63229) it received almost universal critical acclaim; whereupon, apparently chagrined by the prospect of a money-making release that might justify the continued existence of its classical division, Sony promptly withdrew it, at least from domestic circulation. There being nothing like the unobtainable to trigger the predatory instincts of the “true” collector, used copies of the CD appeared on eBay selling for $100. The current release attests, once again, to that old adage, “a fool and his money are easily parted”; for here in this re-packaging—for the price of a single midpriced CD—we have not only Ax’s previously dropped Brahms Second, recorded in 1997, but his First as well, recorded in 1983, and which, to the best of my knowledge, has also been long unavailable, at least in the US. Gone from the original Brahms Second release, and the better for it, is its coupling with a transcription of the composer’s G-Major Violin Sonata for cello, played by Ax and Yo-Yo Ma. In its place, we now get a generous, if not complete, filler of selections from Brahms’s sets of late solo piano pieces.

Recordings of both concertos have been reviewed in these pages numerous times; therefore, it is not necessary to expound on matters historical or musicological. Relevant to this review, however, are issues of interpretation and execution. Most of the rich and famous among keyboard artists past and present have attended to Brahms’s two monolithic piano concertos—some more than once, and virtually all with varying degrees of success. Backhaus, Curzon, Horowitz, Pollini, Richter, and Rubinstein all had their say, and I would be loath to suggest that any one of them made recordings that are less than worthy of serious consideration. Yet in my many years of listening to countless versions, I have reached one inescapable conclusion: it is not the pianist but the conductor that makes or breaks these works.

Both concertos are symphonic in dimensions, but more important, in the way the piano is integrated—one might even say, subsumed—into the orchestral fabric. The most successful performances, therefore, seem to be those in which the soloist accepts his role as but one member of a team whose collective will is shaped and guided by the conductor. The least successful are those in which the soloist is allowed to prevail in the clash of egos, the most notorious example being the 1962 contest of wills between Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein in a performance of the First Concerto. There were no winners in that cat fight, least of all Brahms. If one agrees with my premise, then it should come as no surprise that Fritz Reiner and George Szell were responsible for some of the best recordings of these works.

Take, for example, Cliburn’s 1964 recording of the First Concerto with Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony. It’s a fine performance, but one that never garnered the same critical acclaim as Cliburn’s 1961 recording of the Second Concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, still one of the top-ranking recommendations. Then take Serkin’s 1960 recording of the Second Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, again a very fine version that has worn well with time. But good as it is, it is eclipsed by Serkin’s 1966 recording of the same piece with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. And speaking of Szell and Cleveland, there has yet to be a recording of the First Concerto—at least one I’ve heard—that tops Leon Fleisher’s 1958 effort with these same forces.

Claudio Arrau with Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw can still be recommended for the pianist’s sumptuous tone, fullness of Brahmsian ripeness, and Philips’s two-fer price of $14.99 for both concertos. Emil Gilels’s 1972 endeavor with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic—highly regarded by many—is indeed characterized by outstanding playing, but I’d have to qualify a recommendation on grounds of less than ideal recorded sound and a currently high import price.

So finally we come to Ax, Levine, and Chicago in the First Concerto, and Ax, Haitink, and Boston in the Second. Neither, as far as I’ve been able to determine, has been previously reviewed in these pages; though as noted above, Ax’s Second was a top contender, at least for the duration of its short shelf life. But let me begin with the First.

In not a few ways, Ax’s First is a close cousin to the recently reviewed Zimerman/Rattle (30:1). It is a powerful account that makes quite a sonic impact, but like Zimerman/Rattle, Ax/Levine makes its points more deliberately than Fleisher/Szell. A&L deliver the first movement in 23:05, not much faster than Z&R’s 23:27, but still considerably slower than F&S’s 21:19. Yet it isn’t just tempo that contributes to A&L’s more relaxed feeling. F&S are more taut and incisive, their Maestoso more restive, like the young prince who is perhaps a bit too eager to assume the mantle of the aging monarch. But it is in the glorious second movement of this concerto that A&L ascend to the exalted level of F&S. Their timings—14:25 and 14: 36, respectively—are almost identical, and both press the ever enlarging sweeps of the phrase arcs forward in a way that Z&R’s more lethargic reading at 15:45 doesn’t. Unfortunately, in the last movement, A&L revert to a tempo (12:19) even slower than Z&R’s (12:09), and significantly so compared to F&S’s (10:53). What is lost is the delirious, almost demonic character of this Gypsy stomping dance.

Ax’s Second Concerto, with a different conductor and orchestra, is already a proven product. Though competition is stiff—Joshua Pierce in 29:6 and Marc-André Hamelin in 30:3 both received strong recommendations, I continue to find the Ax/Haitink reading one of the most persuasive, and not least because of the gorgeous sound produced by the Boston Symphony. This is an ennobling performance, one that embraces Brahms’s profound generosity of spirit, and I find it very moving.

To sum up then: a less than totally satisfying First Concerto, but one that still speaks to the heart in the second movement; a magnificent Second Concerto; a probing and sympathetic reading of the Rhapsodies and two of the sets of the composer’s late piano pieces; superbly engineered recordings; and a budget price to boot, add up, if not to the most urgent recommendation, certainly to a strong one.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Conductor:  James Levine
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854-1858; Germany 
Date of Recording: 07/05/1983 
Venue:  Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois 
Length: 49 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano no 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Jules Eskin (Cello), Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Conductor:  Bernard Haitink
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878-1881; Austria 
Length: 49 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Notes: Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts (04/19/1997); Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts (04/21/1997) 
Rhapsodies (2) for Piano, Op. 79 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1879; Austria 
Venue:  Studio 10, RIAS, Berlin, Germany 
Length: 17 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Notes: Studio 10, RIAS, Berlin, Germany (04/19/1991 - 04/21/1991) 
Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119: no 4, Rhapsody in E flat major by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., 
Length: 5 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Notes: Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ (06/13/1995 - 06/15/1995) 
Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119: no 1, Intermezzo in B minor by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., 
Length: 4 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Notes: Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ (06/13/1995 - 06/15/1995) 
Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119: no 2, Intermezzo in E minor by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., 
Length: 4 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Notes: Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ (06/13/1995 - 06/15/1995) 
Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119: no 3, Intermezzo in C major by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., 
Length: 1 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Notes: Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ (06/13/1995 - 06/15/1995) 
Intermezzi (3) for Piano, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  Henry Wood Hall, London, England 
Length: 15 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Notes: Henry Wood Hall, London, England (10/17/1989 - 10/18/1989) 

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