Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/András Schiff (piano)
ECM 485 5770 93:13 mins (2 discs)
Brahms was a beardless young Romantic aged 25 when he launched his stormy D minor Concerto to an ungrateful Hanover audience in 1859, but a securely established master by the time he premiered his more discursively laid-back B flat major Concerto in Budapest in 1881, to immediate acclaim. The heroic tensions of the Concerto No. 1 reflected the young composer’s long struggles to cast its material first as a sonata, then as a symphony, whereas No. 2 accumulated its ample four-movement course over three years of relaxed summer holidays. Between them, these works greatly expanded the symphonic scope of the 19th-century concerto. And now Hungarian pianist András Schiff, who has loved them all his life, has sought to recapture something of the conditions in which they were first heard.
Numbering just 50 period instrument players, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment features natural horns – which Brahms always preferred to more modern valve horns – and string playing without vibrato. Schiff conducts from the keyboard – as Hans von Bülow sometimes did in early performances of these works – securing crisp ensemble and cogent longer-term grasp of structure in his forward-moving tempos, while delivering the often horrendous difficulties, particularly of Concerto No. 2, with eloquence and grace.
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The wiry tone of his restored circa-1859 Blüthner grand may initially disconcert, but the clarity of its bass enables many orchestral details to come through that one rarely hears in latter day battles between big orchestras and thicker-toned Steinways – a clarity enhanced by the slightly dry but immediate Abbey Road recording. Enlightening indeed.