A classic for our time

Interesting how one’s perceptions of any one composer change with the passing of time. In my youth I always found Brahms’ music portentous and heavy-handed. Was it callow immaturity? No doubt!

Now older and hopefully a bit wiser I openheartedly welcome the music of the master of Hamburg, in no small part thanks to András Schiff, a protean artist who has unflappably navigated the quiet musical waters of Bach and the often turbulent ebb and tide of Beethoven, Schubert and Janáček with equal skill and brilliance.

A new release from ECM’s New Series features Andras Schiff with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in two Brahms concertos.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 was completed by Brahms in 1858. It was his first-performed in 1859, a first of many for Brahms: his first piano concerto, his first publicly performed orchestral work, his first success. Brahms was twenty-five years old and he gladly took the advice of friends in the matter of orchestration, ending up with a nicely balanced mix of strings and woodwinds with little brass (only two trumpets) and timpani.

Brahms’s biographers often note that the first sketches for the dramatic opening movement followed quickly on the heels of the 1854 suicide attempt of the composer’s dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, an event which caused great anguish for Brahms. He finally completed the concerto two years after Schumann’s death in 1856. The Piano Concerto No. 2, the second of only two Brahms wrote had to wait 22 years while Brahms worked on it on and off, completing it and premiering in 1881, with himself as soloist.

How Brahms’s personal experiences are expressed in these concertos is subject to debate. The larger than life, emotional grandeur of both works seems to grow more from Brahms’ desire to honor the long held musical belief that in a good concerto the orchestra and the soloist become equal partners who share the same musical ideas and in Brahms’ case those ideas when writing large-scale works were always heroic, muscular and bold.

Beethoven wrote five piano concertos and Mozart, before him, penned twenty-three. Brahms musical interests were as far ranging as those of his predecessors, but much as he loved the piano and much as it would have been easy for him to write more music of this magnitude for his friend Clara Schumann Brahms wrote both this concerto and the second one with other pianists in mind.

Had Andras Schiff lived as a contemporary of Johannes Brahms, the composer would have found the courtly Austro-British classical pianist and conductor a kindred spirit. In this performance of both concertos the Hungarian-born maestro delivers a rock solid performance, leading from the piano the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a reading rich in nuance and scant in mannerisms – in short, one for the ages.

Aided by the conductor-less Orchestra of the Enlightenment, the Hungarian-born, Austro-British pianist is again reunited with fifty musical soul-mates. Playing on an 1859 Bluthner, Schiff summons a whole world of nuanced sonorities from the superb instrument: majestic in the opening of the Concerto No 1 in D minor, lyrically delicates in the Adagio, supple in the final Rondo

Equally at home in the Bb, opus 83 – Brahms’ second and equal in duration to his first – has an even grander, four movement construct which Andras Schiff delicately portrays with chamber music intimacy notwithstanding the wrongheaded notion that this no concerto but a symphony with piano accompaniment.

The Orchestra of the Enlightenment, uncannily much like the one that premiered much of Brahms’ music, exemplary responds, questions, answers, comments, and supports the soloist, sharing the musical tasks as elegantly as one could possibly imagine.

The ECM CD (32690) is available as a hard copy or as a download. Neatly engineered and accompanied by an informative booklet, this recording will surely become a classic for our time.

Rafael de Acha        All About the Arts