Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

András Schiff/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
(ECM, two CDs)
Having gone back to the original manuscripts, Schiff’s work belongs in the front rank of recent recordings

“With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and detoxify the music”, writes András Schiff in the liner notes for his new Brahms disc. “To liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing tradition.” By playing the two concertos on a restored Blüthner piano made in Leipzig around 1859, together with the gut strings and 19th-century wind of the 50-strong Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Schiff’s aim was to get to back to the sound and scale of the performances that the composer himself would have expected. One of Brahms’s favourite orchestras, apparently, was Hans von Bülow’s band in Meiningen, which had just 49 players.

András Schiff/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Brahms Piano Concertos album cover
András Schiff/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Brahms Piano Concertos album cover Photograph: PR handout

In his essay Schiff also reveals it was the two piano concertos that first drew him to Brahms, but while he has known and performed the first concerto for many years (he recorded it in the 1980s with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic), he took much longer to get to grips with the B flat work. As you would expect from Schiff, though, the performances of both works are wonderfully rounded and mature.

He has gone back to the original manuscripts to check details of his performances, discovering, for instance, that Brahms had attached a metronome marking to the first movement of the D minor concerto that is significantly slower than we usually hear today, but which was omitted from the printed editions. It’s a shock to begin with but Schiff makes it convincing, gradually building the tension through the movement as the sound of his Blüthner – with its much less overpowering lower register than we are used to hearing from modern Steinways – blends beautifully with the soft grained OAE strings, while in the slow movement, it’s the wonderfully mellow woodwind that come into their own.

The transparency of the orchestral playing pays dividends in the B flat Concerto too, with Schiff able to make his interpretative points without exaggeration or overassertiveness. The performances certainly cast new light on two of the greatest piano concertos in the repertoire but the competition on disc is fierce; if they don’t quite sweep all the competition aside, they certainly belong in the front rank of recent recordings.


This week’s other pick

Conductor Iván Fischer has taken time over his Brahms cycle with the Budapest Festival Orchestra for Channel Classics. The First Symphony was released in 2009; the Second and Fourth followed in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and now the Third Symphony completes the series. As in the previous instalments the pairing is more Brahms, in this case the substantial, symphonic-scale Serenade No 2. And as in the earlier releases, too, Fischer’s performances are wonderful svelte, the richly upholstered sound of the BFO very different from the OAE’s much more transparent textures for Schiff. But they are also just a bit too objective and detached; these are performances to admire more than to live with.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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