BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel – Claudio Arrau, p./ Bavarian Radio-Sym. Orch. /Rafael Kubelik – Praga Digitals

Claudio Arrau realizes Brahms in the grand manner, both in recital and with a spirited Bavarian ensemble. 

Claudio Arrau plays JOHANNES BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 – Claudio Arrau, p./ Bavarian Radio-Sym. Orch. /Rafael Kubelik – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 068, 79:27 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

A sturdy combination of technical prowess and intellectual erudition marked the long career of Chilean virtuoso Claudio Arrau (1903-1991). Arrau’s often massive chordal approach made him a “German” performer par excellence, courtesy of his one teacher, Martin Krause.  Although Arrau and Vladimir Horowitz had been exact contemporaries, Arrau favored a personal and aesthetic distance from his public, preferring to preserve his individual space and vision without concessions to the public or to record company management. By the end of his career, he dropped encores from his response to audience adulation – you paid your money, and Arrau delivered his stated program. When I complimented him (in Atlanta) on his 1951 inscription of the Schumann Concerto with Victor de Sabata, Arrau remarked, “That was a long time ago.”

The Brahms 1861 Handel Variations remained a staple of the Arrau repertory, and this live recital from Lugano (20 May 1963) has a YouTube video incarnation. The thematic groups of the music have a splendid sense of architecture through Arrau, although purists will chafe at his often wayward tempos and slipped notes. Adulators marvel at the Fugue in this performance, while others chasten Arrau for his manic blurring of distinctions between dotted eighth note and sixteenth notes and their respective rests.  I must admire the increasing intensity of Arrau’s vision as the music proceeds.  The Hungarian elements border on Liszt and a touch of Schoenberg. The alla musette variation (No. 22), while not so diaphanous as Solomon or Moiseiwitsch, has charm and character. The occasional siciliano lavishes nothing but affection and smooth legato from Arrau.  The music unfolds as a marvelous study in counterpoint and Romantic rhetoric, supported by an impressive arsenal of keyboard effects.  For all of their Romantic inclinations, neither Horowitz nor Rubinstein bequeathed us a realization of this most significant Brahms opus.

The d minor Concerto from Munich radio (24 April 1964), the “vestige” of a symphony and a two-piano sonata, had its premier in Hanover, 22 January 1859 to a lukewarm response. The second performance at Leipzig accrued such a poor response that Brahms forswore the city permanently. Arrau and Kubelik take the Maestoso movement somewhat ponderously to my taste, although Arrau’s capacity for monolithic expansiveness and lyrically noble beauty should not be discounted. Elements of the performance might suggest Arrau’s temperamental kinship with Backhaus, except that Arrau’s sensibility remains devoutly Teutonic, while Backhaus’ retains (ironically) a Mediterranean component. Once Arrau sets a decisive tempo, his momentum rarely varies, and the force of his trill ranks among the most powerful.  Consider his waltz-episode that leads to the recapitulation for aesthetic resolve. The long meditative passages from Arrau enjoy the sensibility of a grand, improvised rhapsody.

Whatever the “biographical” impetus – namely, Clara Schumann – for the slow movement, Adagio, Arrau and Kubelik create a rarified, mysterious atmosphere, disarming in its tender intimacies. The brief moments of dark turbulence soon subside into Arrau’s exalted contemplation.  The Rondo: Allegro non troppo conveys less warmth than it does virtuosic conviction, stentorian, syncopated, and Herculean proportions. The Bavarian orchestra, however, swells in response to Kubelik’s demands for a symphonic largesse, though Arrau could hardly be reduced to an “obbligato” status. If Arrau had been “saving up” for the cadenza, he certainly had not held back. The arpeggios and triplets flow in the grand manner in the cadenza, leading with inevitable closure to the horn entry and the extended coda. A sumptuous Brahms d minor, if your taste gravitates to the composer as a more classical version of a Brucknerite.

—Gary Lemco

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