BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15; Tragic Overture, Op. 81; CHERUBINI: Eliza, Le Voyage du Mont Saint-Bernard – Overture – Alexander Melnikov, piano/ Sinfonieorchester Basel/ Ivor Bolton – Harmonia Mundi HMM 902602 (6/22/21) 74:10 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
This somewhat unusual grouping celebrates Johannes Brahms, whether directly or indirectly, as is the case with the Cherubini Overture. British conductor Ivor Bolton takes a stodgy tempo for the 1880 Tragic Overture, though admittedly, Brahms said, “It weeps.” While written in sonata form, this dramatic piece travels, after its descending fourth motto, through a series of competing emotions, often grand and somber, but no less lyrical and nostalgic, as is the counter-theme in F Major. The competition between syncopations in dotted notes and furious onrushes of fury, perhaps invoking the Faust legend but likely simply a concession to the tragic Muse, Melpomene. The constant application of marcato by conductor Bolton makes us wonder if he will “cut the rope” (to quote Zorba) in the last movement of the D Minor Concerto.
Pianist Alexander Melnikov, perhaps following the recent example of Andras Schiff, opts for a period instrument contemporary with the premiere of the D Minor Concerto, an 1859 Bluther, here restored by Christoph Kern. Conductor Bolton well exploits the pregnant pauses in the opening, even grinding, figures of the Concerto, and his slow tempo seems to take the Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein performance from the New York Philharmonic as its model. The “symphony with piano obbligato” notion makes its own case with the ascending fourth motif and the various octave doublings, though Melnikov’s Bluther instrument somewhat thins the keyboard textures. The chorale tune Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (Whoever lets only the Dear Lord guide him) insinuates itself into the progression, just as the liturgical phrase Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (Blessed is he who comes in the Lord’s name) defines much of the second movement in D Major. These moments of piety attest to the Concerto’s spiritual kinship with A German Requiem. The storm and stress of the first movement loses its ferocity in this instrumental guise, however; or perhaps, this reviewer has become unduly sedimented in 60 years’ association with modern grand pianos in this work. In the cadenza passages, it must be granted, Melnikov achieves an intimacy rare in performances of this tumultuous work.
Like movement one, the second movement Adagio proceeds in 6/4, allowing Brahms to indulge his flexible sense of polyrhythm, here in a clear homage to Robert Schumann, who sponsored Brahms and provided the figure of Clara Schumann as “the Eternal Feminine” in his life. This movement, as realized by Melnikov and Bolton, proceeds in the slow manner of pietists’ travelling through the Roman catacombs in a state of reverence. The moments of orchestral interplay with the keyboard, as well as the quasi-improvisational episodes, attaches a distinctly valedictory mood throughout this movement, which has rarely been rendered with such mystical awe. The lusty, virtuosic Rondo – Allegro non troppo in D Minor, 2/4, enjoys a hearty, opening thrust, the woodwind work clear against the Bluther instrument. The Basel timpanist has been potent aggressive in each of the movements, and he makes his presence felt here. A whiplash attack sets the secondary theme in motion, leading to the “learned” moment of fugato, with its elfin mirth in the manner of Carl Maria von Weber. The music achieves a grand series of perorations, having moved – like Mozart’s Concerto No. 20, K. 466 – into D Major. Has Bolton truly “cut the rope” and allowed Brahms to exult? The lush sonorities in horn, winds and keyboard would affirm that this passion has indeed found fulfillment.
The sense of “authenticity” in this disc to recapture the 1859 Brahms concert concludes with Luigi Cherubini’s Overture to Eliza, an Opéra comique of 1794 set in the Swiss Alps and featuring a ranz des vaches, or mountain-song. Beethoven well admired this music, and commentators have pointed out the correspondence of the coda in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the final pages of this overture. Cherubini had been inspired by the Romantic spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and this buoyant and energetic effusion testifies to a bucolic element suggestive even to the mighty Beethoven.