Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto, with Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat with Frank Peter Zimmermann

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Schumann
LABELS: RCO
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms * Schumann
WORKS: Brahms: Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto No. 1; Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat
PERFORMER: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Emanuel Ax (piano); RCO Chamber Soloists; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
CATALOGUE NO: RCO 17001 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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This collection from the RCO centres on the artistry of two well-loved veterans, conductor Bernard Haitink (now honorary conductor) and pianist Emanuel Ax. A born Brahmsian, Ax gives full rein to the sheer massiveness of the First Piano Concerto, producing a performance of range and depth, intimately captured in this recording. In the first movement he thunders with conviction even if some trills are occasionally garbled, while solo passages are lit with poignant regret. The orchestra under Haitink takes a while to find a unity of purpose – the whole of the opening lacks direction and shape, and there are untidy and unsure moments, particularly in the strings. When they eventually warm up, though, there’s a lovely stealth to the lower strings, and upper strings contribute a veiled radiance, like the glow of antique gilt. In a truly spacious Adagio, Ax and Haitink make every second count, Ax giving a masterclass in long line. The finale doesn’t exactly dance, but they create a sufficiently fiery contrast.

Ax is joined by RCO principal players for Schumann’s joyful Piano Quartet, here a glossy, big-scale affair, perhaps missing some of the fragility and ambiguity others have found. While Ax is ever-alert, his partners are more sluggish, particularly in the delicate Scherzo.

The estimable Frank Peter Zimmermann is soloist in a blazing, flawless live performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto from 2010. His high-tension, heroic style is matched by crisp precision from the orchestra. Hearing his intensely virile Adagio, it’s hard to fathom how contemporary virtuosos rejected it as a ‘feeble’ concerto.

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Helen Wallace