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Brahms, Serkin And More!
Johannes Brahms
Piano Concerto Number Two
In B Flat Major Opus 83

By Various Artists

Rudolf Serkin
Eugene Ormandy
The Philadelphia Orchestra

Review by Ray Chowkwanyun
Click here to e-mail reviewer

CD Numbers: See Below

 

  Brahms Second Piano Concerto is one of the monuments of classical music. His conception is so complete that it is well nigh impossible for an interpreter to fluff the piece as long as he follows the master's instructions. That said, Serkin imposes his own inimitable character on this concerto. His tempos are fluid, even jerky at times. He likes to vary the dynamics too, dropping in a crashing forte here and there (what an entrance he makes!) before throttling back to a hushed pianissimo. Most critics do not like it, declaring it cold and clinical. Contrariwise, I like the Serkin personality and his way of taking the music in great big gulps, carving out vast over-arching phrases. But be warned that I have a predilection for idiosyncratic performances with character that sound like they were played by a real person rather than a bloodless music making machine. 

Ormandy and the Philadelphians are ideal accompanists. In ye olden days, the Philadelphia was counted as one of the Big Five American orchestras but always with the somewhat dismissive characterization of "plush strings". As if there were something wrong about plush strings. I think the intent was to vaguely insinuate something Mantovanian about the whole thing. What we get is a full bodied two fisted approach that is bursting with strength and vigor. The strings may be plush but they've got muscle too and the rest of the orchestra is right in there with them. The focus on the Philadelphia strings tended to obscure the fact that the woodwinds and brass were terrific too. As proof, one needs look no further than the wonderful horn solo at the very beginning and the chirping of the woodwinds in the last movement is positively infectious. Actually, I would go so far as to recommend always taking a flyer on Ormandy and the Philadelphians, especially from the budget or used bin. You may not get the ultimate, but you're almost certainly assured of a first class performance that is above all, enjoyable.

The sound quality on my six eyes LP is a bit steely. Nothing that a bell boost around 100 Hz and a shelf cut around 4Khz won't fix. Oddly enough, the CD has more hiss than the LP. It also benefits from a boost in the midbass and a cut in the midrange.

 

Igor Zhukov
Gennady Rozhdestvensky
The Russian Radio Orchestra

LP: Harmonia Mundi HMC 5164
Music: 90 Sound: 85

OK, so you're a bit wary of all that overflowing Serkin personality. You're a conservative chap who'd be happier with something a wee bit safer. Then Zhukov is the man for you. His interpretation is a noble one with great sweep and power but is more restrained than Serkin. It's rather like the difference between an old 911, where there was always a real danger of ending up in the ditch, and the new 911 which is the beast tamed. The Russian Radio Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky provides sympathetic accompaniment. The sound quality exhibits the usual cool clear Harmonia Mundi sound. The only problem with the Zhukov is laying your hands on the thing since Harmonia Mundi has not seen fit to re-issue it on CD. But if you see it in a used record bin, grab it with both hands.

 

Maurizio Pollini
Claudio Abbado
Vienna Philharmonic

LP: Deutsche Grammophon DG 2530 790
Music: 90 Sound: 80

Pollini's interpretation is also out of favor with the critics and once again we hear the dread words, "Cold and clinical". Yet I find this performance pulsing with life. How could it not with the superb Wiener Philharmoniker under the baton of Abbado providing the orchestral accompaniment? Like the Zhukov it is also a performance of great sweep, but more poised and yet relaxed at the same time. Pollini falls somewhere between the cerebrality of the Zhukov and the passion of the Serkin. I have heard Pollini and Abbado perform this concerto live, albeit with a somewhat lesser outfit known as the Berlin Philharmonic, where the performance was utterly different from what was rehearsed. The Italian has intellect, but he also has the passion to respond to the mood of the moment. No-one can match the sheer limpidity of his playing, unless it be his mentor, Michaelangeli.

The sound is another matter. Vintage 70's Deutsche Grammophon. Now the sound could fairly be described as cold and clinical. Perhaps the critics are confusing the sound with the interpretation? It is rare to hear the Wieners captured in all their full glory and this recording certainly doesn't hit the mark. The dynamics and soundstaging are certainly there, the problem is the rich tonality of the Wieners has been utterly missed by the DG tonmeister.

 

Sviatoslav Richter
Lorin Maazel
Orchestre de Paris

LP: Seraphim S 36728

Richter was one of the greatest pianists of the last century. Listen to this album and you will see why. He gives an impassioned reading, full of fire, vim and vigor. Maazel is right in there with him. French orchestras have an, ahem, mixed reputation but the Orchestre de Paris acquits itself nobly in this outing. Too bad they are let down by the usual abysmal Seraphim sound. It's the somewhat bloated somewhat dry sound that we have become all too accustomed to hearing from this label.

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Zubin Mehta
The London Symphony Orchestra

LP: London CS 6539


In the world of pianists, Ashkenazy is known as old reliable, much the same as Ormandy and the Philadelphians in the sphere of orchestras. Again, this tends to obscure the fact that he is a pianist of great individuality. Reliable doesn't have to mean boring. His interpretation is by far the most nuanced. Each individual note seems to have been thought out and given its own particular weight. He loves to bend a phrase. The problem with this recording is the utterly pedestrian conducting of Zubin Mehta. It's not bad, it's simply uninspired and plodding.

 

Sviatoslav Richter
Erich Leinsdorf
Chicago Symphony

CD: RCA 07863-56518-2
Music: 75 Sound: 75

Now we come to the mystery recording of the evening. The mystery being why this record has been accorded iconic status as the Brahms Second Piano Concerto of the century. Compared to the other Richter recording reviewed above, he sounds rushed and at times his tone is downright clangy. It's the Brahms Second of a man late for his bus. He skims over the surface of the music albeit with commanding technique - this is after all the mighty Richter. Leinsdorf and the Chicagoans are no help, turning in a scrappy performance devoid of any charm or warmth. The magical doggie sound is also conspicuous by its absence despite the presence of master engineer Lewis Layton at the controls. I don't think I am interpolating the thin awful sound to conclude that this is a thin awful performance. All in all a most puzzling album.

 

Rudolf Serkin
Eugene Ormandy
The Philadelphia Orchestra
LP: Columbia ML 5117 
Music: 95 Sound: 85

CD: Odyssey MBK 46273
Music: 95 Sound: 85

 

Igor Zhukov
Gennady Rozhdestvensky
The Russian Radio Orchestra
LP: Harmonia Mundi HMC 5164
Music: 90 Sound: 85

 

Maurizio Pollini
Claudio Abbado
Vienna Philharmonic
LP: Deutsche Grammophon DG 2530 790
Music: 90 Sound: 80

 

Sviatoslav Richter
Lorin Maazel
Orchestre de Paris
LP: Seraphim S 36728
Music: 90 Sound: 75

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Zubin Mehta
The London Symphony Orchestra
LP: London CS 6539
Music: 85 Sound: 90

 

Sviatoslav Richter
Erich Leinsdorf
Chicago Symphony
CD: RCA 07863-56518-2
Music: 75 Sound: 75

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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