BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d, Op. 15; Intermezzo 1, Op. 119 – Hardy Rittner, piano/ l’arte del mondo/ Werner Ehrhardt – MD&G multichannel SACD 904 1699 (and 2+2+2), 50:39 [Distr. by E1] ***1/2:
Musical archeology is alive and well in this release! Not only do we have a period instrument orchestra, but an 1854 Erard piano as well. The notes go to great length to explain that the choice of Erard was done on several grounds. One—that even though there were a number of Viennese pianos that Brahms played on, with wonderfully mellow and lyrical tone, Erard was a favorite, evidenced by his cancellation of the premiere of this concerto in Hamburg because his favorite Erard was not available. Second, according to the opinion of the pianist himself in this recording, the Erard was best able to cut through the massive textures of Brahms’s concerto, so orchestrally rich. And this particular piano has all of the tone-producing parts in their original state, not replacements of any kind.
The instrument is a nice one but still must be taken from the standpoint of the 21st century. Pianos are much better now, and Brahms would be the first to embrace a modern Steinway. So it appears that one of the goals of the current recording is indeed an archeological one, to hear what Brahms heard. This is all well and good, but ultimately of little interest after an initial hearing. If the performance stinks who really cares, and who wants to buy a SACD that offers nothing but a once-through? Fortunately Mr. Rittner does have something to say in this music, and though I detected not a few questionable tonal lapses between piano and orchestra, the spirit of the thing still moved me, and his reading must be considered by all accounts a fine one.
With so many Brahms Firsts on the market this might not be enough to persuade anyone to buy this, and that is fully understandable. The addition of only one little excised piano piece just to boost the album over the paltry 50-minute mark is almost insulting—why not give us all of Opus 119? As is, I am sure I will return to this from time to time, but it won’t be because of the 1854 Erard—it will be because Rittner really has something to say in this music.
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