Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Sonata in D, Op. 78 (arr. from Violin Sonata in G)

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Sonata in D, Op. 78 (arr. from Violin Sonata in G)
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax (piano), Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Boston SO/Bernard Haitink
CATALOGUE NO: SK 63229
Emanuel Ax is no barn-storming Brahmsian, making bravura cannon-fodder out of this most lyrical among Classic-Romantic piano concertos. His selfless, unwavering commitment to the composer’s intentions finds him the equal of Backhaus, Fischer, Serkin, Arrau, Pollini and Brendel in this outstanding new performance.

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Taste, proportion, and logic constantly inform Ax’s playing of, say, a Haydn sonata, and he instinctively transfers these virtues to Brahms’s most ‘symphonic’ concerto. Ax and Haitink take a less urgent view than Brendel and Abbado, yet there’s no lack of emphatic grandeur when needed. But where Abbado’s accompaniments are often lean-textured, Haitink finds greater rapture and radiance without sacrificing nobility. Ax is masterful; I’ve never heard the lead-back to the first movement recapitulation, for example, so beautifully nuanced. The counterfoil to such Olympian calm, of course, is the torrential scherzo; there’s as much Sturm und Drang as the music can reasonably withstand, and Ax’s deliberate, austere style recalls Serkin’s.

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The Andante’s cello solo sounds recessed, but the recording captures the ambience of Boston’s Symphony Hall so perfectly that the ear quickly adjusts to the perspective. Tovey wrote of the finale ‘let the children play in the world which our work has made safer and happier for them’; Ax takes the advice to heart, in a remarkably fresh, untroubled rendition. Not that this relaxed, care-free approach eludes Brendel, but Haitink’s keen, buoyantly-sprung accompaniment sounds more natural than Abbado’s. Already a winner, this disc also features Yo-Yo Ma partnering Ax in the cello version of the Op. 78 violin sonata – an irresistible bonus. Michael Jameson