, February 2007
This disc is the seventeenth in the continuing Naxos series of Brahms’ complete four hand piano music. It is an odd project in a way. After all, Brahms’ primary aim in arranging his orchestral works for piano was to disseminate his music more widely. Now that we have ready access to recordings of the original orchestral works, surely we do not need these arrangements any more, let alone recordings of them. Or do we? Brahms was a consummate craftsman, and he brought his considerable skill to bear in preparing arrangements of his own music and the music of his friends. Here, the result of his labours make for satisfying listening in their own right, and shed new light on the original works.
The major arrangement on this disc is the 1873 two piano version of Brahms’ first piano concerto. The concerto started life as a sonata for two pianos - not the version recorded here - morphed into something of a symphony, before reaching its final form. The concerto was then arranged for four hands at one piano in 1864 (recorded on Naxos 8.554116), and nine years later it was arranged for four hands at two pianos - the version recorded here - bringing the piece full circle, from two pianos, back to two pianos.
It is not entirely clear whether Brahms arranged this 1873 version of his concerto from scratch, or whether he corrected and amended a draft arrangement by another musician. In the main, it sounds like Brahms to me. This version certainly does not cast the second piano as a replacement for the orchestra, but uses it as a flexible foil to the solo piano. At one moment you could be listening to a concerto, the next a transcribed symphony, then a sonata for two pianos or, in the slow movement, a free rhapsody. The superfluous final rumble from the “orchestral” piano after the “soloist’s” final cadence at the end of the rondo seems to be a miscalculation, though. Surely this was the idea of someone other than Brahms.
There is a great deal of thought and a sense of the epic to Matthies’ and Köhn’s performance of the concerto. Theirs is a reading of pregnant storm clouds rather than lightning and whirling tempest, but what they lack in the mercurial they make up in the reflective. Careful attention to dynamics, moderate use of rubato and firm fingers on the keys bring details in the arrangement to life. Tempi are measured, and rubato generous. Overall, their performance has a dark-wood sonority, which reminded me of the immensity and grandeur of Claudio Arrau's flawed performance with Giulini and the Philharmonia on EMI (Rouge et Noire 0724357532624).
Matthies’ and Köhn’s deliberate tempi in the first movement at times approach ponderousness. The concerto’s orchestral introduction is divided between the two pianos, with the thematic material tossed about from one keyboard to the other like a ferry on a rough crossing from Calais. When the solo piano finally enters, the effect is hushed and magical. The darkness of the serried ranks of trills melts into shafts of sunlight and shades of longing.
There is loveliness in the slow movement. The solo pianist has the run of proceedings and accompaniment is used sparingly. From the outset, the feel is rhapsodic and free, with phrases given plenty of breathing space. The descending suspensions from about 2:45 into the slow movement almost sound like Rachmaninov here. This is a slow movement that ebbs, flows and sighs.
The rondo finale could start with more spark, but moves along well enough to bring the performance to a satisfying close.
The coupling is an interesting choice. According to Keith Anderson’s excellent liner notes, Joachim wrote over fifty pieces during his fifteen years as concertmaster to the Hanoverian court. His Demetrius Overture was the second of four concert overtures he penned during this time. It was dedicated to Franz Liszt and betrays something of his countryman’s influence, an influence which Brahms’ arrangement does not obscure in the slightest. It is a “hero” overture, with the hero’s motif stated with pomp in the opening bars, and following him on his chromatic wanderings and adventures, as he gets himself into dramatic minor key scrapes and emerges, eventually, chastened but victorious. It is not a masterpiece, but is worth a hearing.
The recorded sound is warm and clear, with the two pianos balanced antiphonally left and right.
I would happily recommend this four hand recording of concerto to Brahms lovers who know the original well. The Joachim overture is a great bonus.