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Piano Concerto no 1 in D minor

Introduction and Concert Allegro in D minor

Idil Biret with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Antoni Wit)
(recorded 29-31 August, 1996)
Naxos 8.554088 [66:15]

The notable feature here is the coupling of the Brahms and Schumann pieces. I had not previously heard the Schumann. Listening to it straight after the concerto I was struck by its remarkable similarity to the Brahms in thematic content and general texture, which could be explained only partly by their shared key-signature. Afterwards, turning to the sleeve note, I learned that Brahms had indeed made the Schumann piece the starting-point for his concerto, which contains a number of direct quotations from that work. This disc can certainly be recommended to anyone who wishes to study the musical and personal relationship between the two composers in 1853/54: while Brahms was on the threshold of a successful career, Schumann was about to end his days confined to an asylum.

Both works receive solid, straightforward accounts. In the concerto, Idil Biret belies her gender with a reading of great virility, and is fully equal to the work's technical demands. If there are one or two faults, these are partly attributable to the composer, but mainly to the limitations of the instrument at her disposal. Thus, the first movement's somewhat plodding second subject is not helped by the piano's lacklustre tone in its middle register. In the slow movement, I found her playing dutiful rather than inspired; but she brings real zest to the finale.

Balance is generally good, though the opening is marred by over-thunderous timpani (noticeable elsewhere too). The orchestra comes over best in the p/mf dynamic range (the fugato passage in the finale, for instance, is superbly handled), but I did not care for the sound quality in tutti passages, where some distortion is apparent.

The Schumann is an uneven work. It has moments of inspiration but not a little padding (as in the banal D major ending). But, for the reason given above, it merits the occasional airing.

Adrian Smith



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