BRAHMS Piano Concerto No.2. SCHUMANN Introduction and Allegro appasionato. Biret/Polish RNSO/Wit (Naxos) – INKPOT

Johannes BRAHMS
Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op. 83

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op.92
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Kawotice)
conducted by Antoni Wit

NAXOS 8.554089
[67:17] budget-price

by Derek Lim

If you spend what little money it takes to buy this record, I think you will find that what we have here are two masterly performances by a great pianist, technically and musically up to the music that she presents in this CD.

In reviewing this disc, for the Brahms concerto I took out some of my favourite recordings – Fischer/Furtwängler, Adrian Aeschenbacher/Furtwängler, Sviatoslav Richer/Lorin Maazel and Stephen Kovacevich/Sawallisch, and each time her playing stood up to the comparison very well.

BrahmsI prefer slightly slower tempi for the opening of the concerto, which seems to me as the unfurling of a great canvass, and if you like to see Brahms’ late pieces as autumnal, then perhaps upon the unfurling the great canvass one is presented with a warm sunlit glow. Whichever imagery, if necessary, suits your imagination, my argument for the slower opening is that the movement as a whole has its dramatic moments, but these should be contrasted with the more reflective moments. The piano part throughout is rather improvisatory, and nowhere more so than in the first pages of the work, where the piano has to comment on the opening theme without hurrying it.

Here the great opening horn solo followed by the piano “echo” is not hurried, savoured rather, and after the first theme is stated, the defiant piano solo following is appropriately rhetorical, but not overtly so. One might find, as I did that the piano sound here is rather dry and thus unattractive, this seems to be because Biret has pedalled the piano less in order to let the listener hear more voices. One of the very attractive aspects of her playing is that one gets to hear a lot of the lower voices, and the essential contrapuntal element of Brahms’ composition is brought out.

If you love the piece, then you will know that the opening piano solo is crucial, very difficult and musically a beast to carry out. Kovacevich rushes the statement of the first theme, after the horn solo, Richter plays it perfectly poised and unrushed. I think the theme is a very “Olympian” one, not unlike for example, the analogous opening of the third Beethoven cello sonata, with very wide open spaces. Biret opts for the poise and grace of this passage and I think the result is beautiful.

But more rewards come in the ensuing solo for the piano, where she, without rushing, molds and shapes it so that the thrilling orchestra passage that follows seems inevitable. Here is where this recording falls short, however, partially because the quality of the recording is rather wanting, for me. It seems to be very short on details and on the bass, so that bass definition is quite lacking. Also, more importantly, Antoni Wit doesn’t have the imagination of Biret in this passage, so that it seems less well-controlled than it could be, and less exciting than it might have been. This orchestra passage is no less important in my book than the piano solo.

Idil BiretHowever, things after that could not be better, and the whole first movement, chamber music writ large, is totally involved and enjoyable, with the wind solos especially lovely. Biret’s playing is of a very high standard, her interpretation tending towards the very poised and Olympian, less dangerous by far than Fischer or Aschenbacher with Furtwängler. It is a performance on a very large scale, it seems, that isn’t served as well by the quality of the recording. Getting past that what one gets is very beautiful playing, very understated musicianship, never any sign by far of showmanship.

The opening of the second movement brings to the fore again Biret’s very unpedalled playing, which has the curious result of making it sound very incisive, which is of course what it should be! Again I would prefer a denser, broader orchestra sound, but the musicianship here is of a very high standard, and very Brahmsian, and again understated, but very enjoyable all the same. Tempi are rather moderate, with none of the fireworks perhaps that Aschenbacher can bring up.

I liked the playing in the third movement least of all, but only because I prefer a slightly more Romantic approach. Here is a performance which is full of Classical restraint, however, and which is no less beautiful for that reason. Having said that I find the string tone, especially that of the cello solo at the start rather on the thin side.

The last movement is a joy to listen to from start to end, solid musicianship from soloist and solo instruments alike, if lacking a little of the cheeky sparkle Richter has with Maazel. But it isn’t less playful, and the movement is shaped well, and the Polish forces give beautiful, light accompaniment to this, the lightest of concerto movements, especially the solo winds, of which the oboist is simply a joy.

The Schumann Introduction and Allegro appassionato which fills the disc is a 16-minute piece. The Introduction is typically Schumannian – beautiful and limpid, the appassionato has a theme which starts fanfare like (rather like the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth actually – the rhythm is similar too.), and sounds rather military. The Allegro part starts in minor and ends in major, which should give you some idea of what kind of piece it is overall. Biret plays with much gusto and expression, at home in both the slower Introduction and the Allegro, and is accompanied to the hilt by Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. One might wish for a little more daring, but this is already very satisfactory. This piece should be played a lot more and taken up as part of the repertoire by pianists.

This is the first time I’ve heard Biret play much, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, dispite the misgivings I had at the beginning. (I was prepared to dismiss the disc on casual hearing, but as always I make sure I listen to a disc 8 to 10 times before coming to a conclusion.) These misgivings were probably due to the sound of the disc, as you may have surmised by now. However, I suggest that for this low price you buy the disc and listen for yourself several times. I doubt you will be disappointed.

DEREK LIM was last seen at Tower Records in a recent “salvage” operation.

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