Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-80212-2
Marketing these Buchbinder-Harnoncourt performances jointly may confer a small commercial advantage, but no one who takes a chance on this set will be disappointed. Like Pollini’s recent DG Vienna account of Concerto No. 1, these are live recordings, but where Pollini’s well-ordered inscrutability occasionally cloyed, Buchbinder’s reading surges with energy and passion. Harnoncourt’s direction (helped by the superbly balanced recording) draws the ear to countless details of orchestration – had you ever noticed, for example, just how busy the bassoons are kept throughout the Hungarian finale?

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While I never found Harnoncourt’s Brahms symphonies entirely satisfying, he is a masterly accompanist, making the colossal opening movement of No. 1 nobly tragic and the devotional musings of the Adagio more poignant than usual. Buchbinder’s playing is spellbinding and, again, the engineering clarifies a wealth of keyboard detail that often eludes attention.

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Turning to the Second Concerto, Buchbinder’s performance is superlative in its virtuosity, its sense of spaciousness and its architectural solidity. It’s also a radical departure from the lustrous, Romantically gilded eloquence of the recent Sony version from Ax and Haitink, one you’ll certainly prefer if you favour a more palpably heroic, dramatic approach in this work. Both performances are exceptionally fine, though the Concertgebouw’s solo cellist has the edge, I think, in the great solo passage of the Andante. If you’re happy to live with Ax’s more genial, considered approach, choose the fine Sony issue, but if you value an impulsive, muscular Brahms – and want both concertos from the same artists – Buchbinder and Harnoncourt seem unsurpassed.