Players of two Brahms concertos face rare challenge


The task of Beethoven's successors in composing piano concertos was to reconcile the personal expressiveness of his ,, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major with the behemoth-like monumentality of the Concerto No. 5 in E flat ("Emperor"). Most of the composers who followed Beethoven -- Liszt, Schumann and Grieg, among them -- failed to do this. Only Brahms -- in his youthful Concerto No. 1 in D minor and his much later Concerto No. 2 in B flat -- achieved the desired synthesis.

Here's the rub: Brahms' two concertos are themselves as different in character (if not more so) as Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth. Perhaps partly because of its long and arduous gestation and birth, the D minor concerto suggests something still struggling into not-quite finished form; it is violent, tormented and tragic. The B flat concerto, while it reflects an awareness of troubled depths, is contrastingly Olympian, almost serene. Scarcely a wonder, then, that listening to several recently issued recordings of the concertos reveals few pianists equally at home in both pieces.

Stephen Kovacevich, always a fine Brahms interpreter, has now recorded the concertos twice. In the 1970s, he recorded with Colin Davis and the London Symphony in performances now reissued on a budget-priced 2-CD set (Philips), which includes some of the composer's solo works. For the second time, he recorded on two separate discs (EMI) with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the London Philharmonic.

Like most of his colleagues, Kovacevich plays one concerto better than the other. But in his recordings, separated as they are by 15 years, it's not the same concerto. In the '70s, Kovacevich's polished and lyrical pianism was better suited to the B-flat than to the D minor work. Now a more intense, angular-sounding player, Kovacevich sounds better in the D minor. Compared to its predecessor of 15 years ago, however, his new B-flat sounds mannered and labored.

Few pianists performed the Brahms concertos as well as the great British pianist Solomon, whose two commercial recordings have been just reissued (Testament). The Concerto No. 2, recorded in 1947 with Issay Dobrown conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, is among the finest -- monumental in its artistic design and dazzling in its pianistic facility.

Unfortunately, the 1952 Brahms No. 1, with Rafael Kubelik and the Philharmonia, is marred. The musicians of the Philharmonia so detested the Czech conductor that, despite their affection for Solomon, they could not bring themselves to play well for him.

A stunning new version of the D minor comes from a pirate tape of an actual 1969 performance in Carnegie Hall that features pianist John Ogdon and Leopold Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra (Music and Arts). Ogdon, whose manic-depressive lapses and frequent hospitalizations destroyed his career long before his premature death at 52 in 1989, was one of the giant talents of the 1960s. He was a pianist with a knack for huge pieces like the Busoni Concerto, Messaien's "Vingt Regards" and the Liszt Sonata. He also had an uncanny ability to take one deep into the darkness of works such as the Brahms D minor. Ogdon's elemental playing takes a listener dangerously close to the forces tormenting the young Brahms as he created this piece. A bonus of the disc is almost 30 minutes of excerpts from the rehearsals for the performance.

In a much more civilized (and much less interesting) recording, Mark Anderson, who won last summer's Kapell Competition in College Park, performs the Brahms D minor (along with Dohnanyi's "Nursery Variations") with Adam Fischer and the Hungarian State Orchestra (Nimbus).

The young American does not possess an abundance of facility, and the grandest moments of the outer movements are somewhat beyond his grasp. But he is a sensitive musician, whose touchingly introspective playing in the slow movement sometimes suggests that of Clifford Curzon.

Anderson's is certainly better than the uneventful performance by the pianistically better-equipped Elisabeth Leonskaja, with Eliahu Inbal and the Philharmonia (Teldec). The Russian-born and trained Leonskaja is more impressive with the sunnier B-flat concerto (Teldec), which is closer than the D minor concerto to the songful sonatas of Schubert of which she is such a fine interpreter. Her performance here, beautifully accompanied by her favorite partner, conductor Kurt Masur with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, is heartfelt and elegant.

In a reissued 1976 recording with the same orchestra and conductor (Berlin Classics), the French pianist Cecile Ousset, a formidable virtuosa who's at her stunning best in the glittering etudes of Saint-Saens, gives quite a different interpretation.

As one might expect, Ousset's playing achieves brilliance more easily than grandeur. In the slow movement, however, her accompaniment of the Gewandhaus' solo cellist, Jurnjakob Timm, is genuinely warm, even rapturous.

A performance successful in all its movements comes from Gina Bachauer (1913-1976), a pianist with staggering fingers and a big heart. Her 1963 recording -- reissued with performances of solo works by Brahms, Liszt and Beethoven -- with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the London Symphony (Mercury) is huge in conception, imposing in sonority and gripping emotionally.

Another forceful virtuosa, the Russian pianist Victoria Postnikova, recorded the Brahms B-flat in 1984 with her husband, conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, and the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra. It is available for the first time in the West on the super-budget Classics from Russia label. For about $6, it is worth investigating.

Around the time she won a high prize in Moscow's 1970 Tchaikovsky Competition, the youthful Postnikova was a speed merchant. After her marriage to Rozhdestvensky, however, her playing changed dramatically. It is now often irritatingly slow in its emphatic point-making, and one sometimes feel like shouting, "Get on with it!" Postnikova's performance is perhaps the slowest ever recorded -- she takes almost nine minutes more than Bachauer -- and it can be accused, with some justice, of ponderousness.

But her musical line never breaks, and the sheer gravity of her interpretation exerts a fascinating, if somewhat perverse, pull.

One of the greatest of all Brahms players was Wilhelm Backhaus, who made three distinguished commercial recordings of the B-flat concerto -- in the 1930s, when he was in his 50s; in the early 1950s, when he was in his 70s; and in 1965, when he was an extraordinarily spry 85. Backhaus was one of the least fussy of the great pianists -- a player whose Aeschylean authority and power remained undiminished by age. Backhaus never performed the B-flat concerto better than on May 18, 1964, when he appeared with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in Vienna.

Pirates of this titanic performance have been on the market for years, and it has reappeared on Italy's Cetra label. This is a record to play for friends in the early hours of the morning. In a 25-year-old pianist, Backhaus' virtuosity would have been astonishing; for one 84 years old, it is nothing less than miraculous.

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