Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EuroArts
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (orch. Schoenberg)
PERFORMER: Daniel Barenboim (piano); Berlin PO/Simon Rattle (Athens, 2004)
CATALOGUE NO: 2020108 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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The monumental Theatre of Herodes Atticus, opened in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, is the spectacular venue for this exceptional open-air Brahms event. Every one of the 5,000 seats seems to be occupied: it’s 2004, and the Berlin Philharmonic is presenting its annual European Concert (each one given in a different country) as the opening item of the Athens Festival. It’s Simon Rattle’s first European Concert with the orchestra, and the first time he has worked with Daniel Barenboim.

The results are impressive. Whether it’s the recorded balance or the famous acoustic clarity of the Greek theatre, it seems possible to hear everything (including the ambient bird-song) in a very natural balance. The protagonists are vividly contrasted. Rattle – and I would really prefer not to have to watch this – seems to mirror every emotional twist and turn of the music in his facial expression, like an over-enthusiastic parent mugging to enthuse a pack of apathetic children.

Barenboim’s demeanour is almost stolid – his opening entry resembles a bank-manager reading a balance-sheet – but he delivers everything expected of him, and more. Whatever the chemistry is, it palpably works: a couple of minor untidinesses in the finale apart, this is a magnificent, big-boned performance of the First Piano Concerto. 

The Schoenberg orchestration of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet (‘Brahms’s Fifth Symphony’ as he jokingly called it) is almost a Rattle party-piece, and he certainly communicates his love of it to the BPO, who play superbly throughout. It’s one of the warmest, most affectionate, most powerful readings I’ve heard.

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The sheer genius of the orchestration lies in the fact that one accepts it all, even the xylophone and the trombone glissandos, as precisely what Brahms would have wanted. The 15-minute bonus (in German, with subtitles) is a portrait of Athens and the Acropolis which includes a summary of previous BPO European Concerts. Calum MacDonald