Last April Erato released a two-CD set of the two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms, Opus 15 in D minor and Opus 83 in B-flat major. The soloist was the American pianist Nicholas Angelich performing with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hessicher Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester) under the baton of Paavo Järvi. Both concertos were recorded in the Hessicher Rundfunk Sendesaal in Frankfurt, both under studio conditions, rather than before a live audience.
This is an ambitious undertaking, particularly where Opus 15 is concerned. Indeed, there is so much that is so challenging about that concerto that I have to confess that I have yet to listen to a satisfying account of it in concert. Brahms was in his early twenties when he worked on it, albeit with encouragement from Robert Schumann, whom he had just met.
An examination of the score leaves one with the impression that Brahms tried to cram everything he possibly could into it. This may have been because he was so motivated to impress Schumann, but it also could have involved his personal turbulent reaction of Schumann’s attempted suicide in 1854. (Brahms did not complete the concerto until two years after Schumann’s death in 1856.) Whatever the influences may have been, the result was that not only is the soloist confronted with massively thick textures that must be resolved with just the right balance of attention to intense virtuosity and expressive thematic content but also the conductor must deal with similar balancing in sorting out the lush demands that Brahms makes on the orchestral ensemble.
On this recording and in this context, Angelich and Järvi emerge as a perfectly matched coupling of talents. Järvi is confronted with balancing problems from the very opening measure. Nevertheless, he always succeeds in bringing out the significant foreground elements while keeping the background instrumentation in its proper place. (To be fair, he may have had some assistance from Thomas Eschler, the engineer responsible for balancing the microphones in this recording project.) Within this setting Angelich always knows where to situate himself, whether his virtuosos passages are simply there to add texture to the background or he is taking the lead in thematic statement and interplay with other instruments.
Brahms’ close friend, the Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth, told Brahms, after examining the score for Opus 83, that the relationship of Opus 83 to Opus 15 paralleled the relationship of man to youth. Nevertheless, there are many pianists and conductors who would not dismiss Opus 15 as immature. Angelich and Järvi may be numbered among them, recognizing that ideas pour forth from this concerto with the ferocious intensity of the stone that Moses struck to provide water but also that, in fashioning every last detail of his score, Brahms knew full well how to channel that intensity.
None of these virtues, however, should detract from the enjoyment of Opus 83, the “second half” of this recording. The fact is that Brahms’ expressiveness in this second concerto can be just as vigorous as it was in the first, particularly in his decision to include an Allegro appassionato (with an emphasis on that adjective) immediately on the heels of the fiery conclusion of the first movement. On the other hand the lyric qualities of the Andante movement are more intimate than those of the Adagio for Opus 15. In the later concerto Brahms even has the piano share solo work with a cello, giving the Opus 83 Andante more of a sense of an intimate conversation. That intimacy continues into the concluding Allegro grazioso (again emphasizing the adjective), when, for the first time in the concerto, things take a playful (but always gracious) turn.
Taken as a whole, this collection makes it clear that, even at the beginning of the 21st century, Brahms remains in good hands, both behind the keyboard and wielding the baton.