BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major – Daniel Barenboim, p./ Staatskapelle Berlin/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG (2 CDs)

BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – Daniel Barenboim, p./ Staatskapelle Berlin/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG 479 4899 (2 CDs) 51:12, 50:58 (8/7/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Recorded 1 and 3 September 2014, this long-familiar combination of the two Brahms piano concertos duplicates the concert Barenboim  and Dudamel had given at the Berlin Philharmonie on 2 September.  Barenboim has embraced the concept of the two concertos on one program at various points earlier in his career, in collaboration with Sergiu Celibidache and Zubin Mehta.

The First Concerto with Barenboim proffers the work’s thickly dramatic textures, serving as they do as a kind of somber requiem for the departed Robert Schumann by way of harmonizations that pay homage to Beethoven.  The voluptuous power of the first movement Maestoso, with its eruptions, counterpoints, and excursions into waltz tempo (and F Major) clearly set a model for the more rhapsodic Burleske of Richard Strauss in the same key. Barenboim’s periods seem quite pronounced in this movement, as if he were elaborating the music’s massive sonata-form in the manner of a Bruckner symphony. The broad tempo – we recall the “horror” of the Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein expanse of 6 April 1962 – no longer appears eccentric and labored.  Dudamel’s contribution appears no less monumental, particularly aided by his fierce tympani player.

The urge to “massive intimacy” continues into the second movement Adagio, in which each participant tries to outdo the other in pianissimo.  Barenboim’s piano tone becomes luxuriantly liquid as he proceeds into the brief cadenza, with gentle murmurs from Dudamel’s string contingent. If the first movement several times hinted at B-flat Major, the finale confirms the progression in the course of its boldly aggressive, rondo finale. Barenboim provides an occasional moment of ad libitum fioritura of his own, urging the muscular line ahead, which likes to show off its contrapuntal methods.  Warm, carillon piano tones pervade this rousing movement, the orchestra’s rather chugging the phrases and then sweeping upward to the warm melody of the strings. The “wind-serenade” episode proves transparent as the music moves to another round of the now frenetic march tune ritornello. The last sections attain a degree of heroism that sloughs off the gloom of the previous movements, although the cadenza hearkens back to the tragic muse in what has become an elegantly noble reading of this concerto. An audience who had been utterly invisible erupts into cries of joyous ovation.

The French hornist who had ingratiated himself in the d minor Concerto now makes his presence even more clear for the opening foray of the 1881 B-flat Concerto.  Claudio Arrau often remarked that the B-flat Concerto demands a particular technique that can accommodate its large spans, thick harmonizations, and thunderous octaves without distorting the fundamental pulse of the music. Barenboim and Dudamel strike a mutual note of optimism and improvisation that suffuses the performance, even in the face of the often demonic d minor Scherzo movement.  For the most part, the grazioso affect of the music resonates amidst even the more monumental declamations by either of the principal forces of this collaboration. With the subtle return of the pastoral horn call for the recapitulation of the first movement, the tympani urges more dramatic impulses.

Few performances of the Scherzo will successfully compete with the esteemed 1958 Gilels/Reiner inscription for virile intensity, and Barenboim eschews the purely motoric elements for a lyrical expressivity more in the manner of the late Artur Rubinstein. The realization has mass and girth, however, and Dudamel has his Staatskapelle horns and tympani in high dudgeon. The last two movements, reduced in scale by the composer, combine intimacy and compressed virtuosity respectively. The eight-measure cello melody of the Andante and its evolution with the keyboard became for Rachmaninov the essence of what a slow movement should communicate in warmth and breadth.  For the last movement, the element of witty play permeates the musical development; though this affect, too, can explode into propulsive stretti when Brahms decides to augment his essentially Viennese lyricism.

Sonic definition for the two concertos remains focused and singularly quiet at once, a miracle of an engineering team led by Friedemann Engelbrecht.

—Gary Lemco

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