INKPOT#67 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BRAHMS Piano Concerto No.1 – An Inktroduction

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor

An Inktroduction by Johann D’Souza

Very few piano concertos begin with a marking like “Maestoso”. One which comes to mind is Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, which is marked “Moderato”. I point this out because commonly there is normally an “Allegro” (fast) first, followed by a slow movement and then ending with a relatively fast movement. Brahms on the other hand opts for “Maestoso-poco piu moderato” (majestically, a “little more moderato” – whatever that means…) and an Adagio second movement followed by another relatively moderate third movement Rondo (Allegro non troppo-piu animato-Tempo I).

It is the marking of “Maestoso” in the first movement that I feel Brahms must have carefully picked to express his feelings of grief. The interplay of the woodwind against a backdrop of syncopated strings with sudden, fortissimo tutti entries strengthen this impression at this tempo, compared to a faster pace.

Brahms wrote two piano concertos: the first in D minor and the second in B-flat major. Both are rather lengthy, like a symphony – roughly in the region of 50 minutes apiece. His Second Concerto is equally interesting with a distinct solo passage in the third movement played by cello and accompanied by the piano, something seldom seen.

Written originally as a sonata for two pianos it was then turned into a symphony which finally found itself becoming a concerto. It begins with a very strong tutti reminiscent like that of an orchestral tutti . Its premiere was met with mixed feelings because of its size and the intensity needed to pull it off. The work was dubbed a “symphony with piano obligato” by the critics at the first performance.

As the Concerto proceeds, there are hints of a troubled mind – it is strongly believed that Brahms was beginning to feel the effects of what Schumann was feeling when the latter jumped into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt. It seems Brahms suffered equally with Schumann, while there is also a rumour that Schumann had suspected he was having an affair with his wife Clara. Thus a pianist going into this concerto has to bear these major factors in mind.

The Concerto’s scoring for the woodwind is often set in the distance to give a sense of premonition, of impending chaos marked by the cascading octaves on the piano marked by sudden outbursts of fortissimi and accented trills. Andrew Davis on Virgin Classics (VBD5 61412-2) manages to engage the pianist expertly, allowing this intensity to permeated through both soloist (Stephen Hough) and orchestra. Critics have said that the Radu Lupu partnership with Edo De Waart (Double Decca 452 355-2) does not display any sense of spark – I disagree, I believe that here there is a strong sense of heaviness and vigour which is slightly better than the studio recording by Barry Douglas (RCA Victor Red Seal RD 87780) with Stanislav Skrowaczewski. The latter is fleetingly done, a bit too light and lacking the riveting massiveness of Brahms.

Brahms described the second movement as a “lovely portrait” of Clara (right). It is hear that he enters the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini”. Claudio Arrau introduces this movement with the chords played with a slight unevenness, as if something is amiss. He opts for this lingering effect rather than taking the metronomic stand, yet still retains textual fidelity. Arrau further takes this movement calmly, allowing individual chords to sing out. His partnership with Haitink keeps one fully enraptured as aspirations of soloist and conductor are met with a sense of understanding.

Curzon under Szell (Decca The Classic Sound 425 082-2) is the only soloist to take this movement at an expanse of 16 minutes, roughly four minutes more than the rest. However, never at any moment are you left to feel that the movement is overdrawn or pedantic in any manner.

The ‘live’ recording by Barry Douglas (Melodiya MEL 45013-2) is equally interesting with all the slips thrown in, showing that he is just as human as the composer. The chords in the first movement use the full body – a certain amount of weight has to be exerted otherwise they will sound rather frivolous and hollow. Speed in this concerto is given a backseat; what is needed in the player is a firm anchor of knowledge to bring out all the tension. Trills have to given their full effect as Brahms used both left- and right-hand trills when making descending runs.

I remember watching a ‘live’ performance in 1996 of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto played by the Tchaikovsky Competition winner of 1990, Boris Berezovsky, conducted by Choo Hoey. This is the best ‘live’ performance I’ve ever heard. He played with excitement, commitment and a sense of self-restraint. I do hope that in the not-too-distant future Teldec will record this concerto to rival the existing and riveting version by Elisabeth Leonskaja (Teldec 2292-46459-2).

Brahms The introduction of the third movement brings back the more Schmannesque aspects of the score where the pianist is allowed to be a bit playful as he jumps immediately into the third movement. The third movement has been often accused of lacking the panache of the first and second movements. The Rondo, I suppose being rightly contrasted to the first two movements , is a bit more energetic and the transposition from D minor to D major marked by a solo cadenza quasi fantasia gives a brighter appearance against the the slightly introspective espressivo markings of the first and second movements.

While this concerto forms the bulk of every major pianist’s repertoire, it is rather difficult to pick an outstanding recording which stands apart from the rest. Below is a list of six recordings which I think are interesting in one way or another. But there are still others which should not be missed, especially those by the pianists of yesteryear, including Emil Gilels and Rudolf Serkin. In fact I have often felt that a concerto of this magnitude, with such symphonic ambience, should be listened to ‘live’ – for its introspection and tension. Although the interpretation is left principally to the pianist, room is given to the conductor to carve his understanding into it as well. The obsessive Brahms once remarked in despair ” I no longer have either judgement or power over this piece”. You therefore be the judge.

In Singapore, these discs are available at or can be ordered from Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Sing Discs (Raffles City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).

Johann D’Souza cannot believe how drastically Anne-Sophie Mutter has changed in looks by merely losing a couple of pounds and wonders if he could do that himself… or was it just the cosmetic photography and modern technology…?

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