Norman Krieger brings some old-world Brahms playing to his grand readings of the Second Concerto and the First Sonata.
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83; Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1 – Norman Krieger, piano/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Philip Ryan Mann – Decca DD41142/481 4871, 80:10 (2/3/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:
Norman Krieger explores (rec. 2014-15) two Brahms works separated by twenty-five years, his Op. 1 Sonata in C Major and the Concerto no. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 of 1878. Each composition, in its own way, testifies to the grand canvas that typifies the Brahms keyboard ethos. The Sonata in C Major vacillates between mammoth and intimate gestures, opening with an almost direct reference to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and then gravitates to a melancholy theme that traverses minor keys in D, E, and A, and whose marking sospirando, suggests a kinship with idol Schumann. The development releases an arsenal of classical procedures, including canons, rolling octaves, and sweeping arpeggios, trills (some in seven notes), and triplet figures. There occur moments in which the gravitas lightens, even while the music passes into minor modes in C and F. Both before and during the extended coda, the texture becomes thick and ominous, the opening, “Beethoven” motif having assumed the nature of a chorale.
Brahms claimed, spuriously, his C minor Andante movement derived from “an old German folk song” for its theme and variations, a kind of antiphon between the hands. The left hand opens the colloquy, and a harmonized response ensues in dotted rhythm. The variants utilize triplets and upbeats and, with the second variation, move to G minor. When the music moves into A-flat Major, the meter shifts away from 2/4 to 4/16 and cross-rhythm in 3/16. Brahms wishes this music to culminate in C Major, and Variation 3 already calls for con grand espressione. Krieger appears conscious of the low C pedal points that lose whatever disturbing impetus they contain to resolve, Adagio, which ironically anticipates the sudden thrust, attacca, into the Scherzo in E minor. This music has a leaping quality, moving from E minor to G Major. A “Beethoven Fifth” rhythmic pulse urges us forward. The music gains a decided gravity, marked fff molto pesante. The Trio is set in C Major and has a sighing quality, and Brahms wants his melancholy G minor and G Major episodes dolente. The reprise plays with minor keys in D and F, the rhythm having become manically resolute, a quirky pulse ending the procession, F Major to E minor. Brahms seems to have taken the cue for his Finale: Allegro con fuoco from Haydn—as much as from Beethoven—with his recycling of motifs from his opening movement and aspects of the preceding Scherzo. A galloping C Major rondo set in 9/8 and 6/8, the music has an ungainly, lumbering momentum whose textures love complexity and a sudden shift to a nostalgic meditation in G Major. At nearly four minutes in, the music in 6/8 assumes the gentle quality of a Scottish tune in A Minor, perhaps a nod to Mendelssohn. The Haydn influence keeps up with the tendency of the rondo theme to revive in wrong keys. Krieger graduates his accelerated tempo to Presto, in which the hands compete for dominance over the main, energized rondo theme, 6/8, now brought to a firm conclusion. Krieger has given us a forceful sense of a young composer’s Opus One that would so impress Robert Schumann for its virile promise.
The performance of the Brahms B-flat Concerto has girth and flexible, lyric persuasiveness, given Krieger’s mighty technique and conductor Mann’s willingness to impart resonant largesse through his responsive LSO. Connoisseurs will find much in this collaboration reminiscent of linear, propelled versions by Katchen and Curzon. In the meditative episodes of the opening Allegro non troppo, a grand leisure settles in, savoring the Brahms interplay of the piano’s arpeggios and the palpitating strings and winds. A sense of improvisation emerges, even in the course of the huge sonata-allegro design, allowing Kreiger his own massive contribution to what becomes—in the common parlance—as a symphony with piano obbligato. The cascading arpeggios and articulate, scalar runs achieve a heady, illuminated resonance, dramatically subdued but fraught with bucolic transparency. The chime-like upper register of the keyboard combines with the French horn to recapitulate the movement, now having gained in something like mystery as well as muscular, symmetrical phraseology.
What Brahms had once designated as “a wisp of a scherzo” rushes in with a fury in D minor, Krieger’s not mincing his phrases. The LSO strings add an especial luster. Krieger injects a fine pearly play into the proceedings while the low string grumble or pluck their response. The middle section in D Major establishes a brief repose, but the music surges forward passionately, and nearly as manically as Toscanini had his NBC ensemble to the Horowitz magic. Conductor Mann ends on the carillon-effect a firm period, so that Krieger’s solo seems a brief cadenza, interrupted by winds and horn. The later addition of the tympani intensifies the sullen, soaring drama which repeats the main tune, rondo-like, moving to a thrilling pause, a restatement of the legato interlude with horn and piano, only to have Krieger propel Mann and his forces to a thunderous, multi-layered coda. The cello solo remains uncredited for the Andante – Piu Adagio movement, which provides a gracious moment bordering on a “double concerto.” Brahms utilized the melody for his lied, “Ever lighter grows my Slumber,” Op. 105, No. 2. Krieger etches his part in strong, resolute colors, the trills, arpeggios, and broken chords in florid motion. Despite some agitation in the music, the piano and supporting strings reach a point of near stasis, a halo of sound outlined in modal colors and topped by a wind pedal. The cello solo returns, now in F-sharp Major, but without having dispelled the loving mystery. Liquid trills from Krieger and diaphanous harmonies from the winds and string s close a stellar movement, captured by Recording Engineer Wolf-Dieter Karwatky. The last movement rondo, Allegretto grazioso in B-flat, mixes geniality of spirit with moments of voluptuous virtuosity. The drooping sequences become alternately liquid and inflamed, with precious motifs from woodwind colors and surging expletives from the LSO strings. Leisurely but eminently aristocratic, the performance may remind some auditors of the grand scheme this concerto could attain under the likes of Bohm and Knappertsbusch in “golden” heydays of pianists like Backhaus and Curzon.