Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) [46:30]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) [13:20]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880) [10:25]
Clifford Curzon (piano)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
rec. November/December 1952 (overtures) and May/June 1953, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
ELOQUENCE 482 5830 [71:08]
Listening to the first movement of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in this vintage performance from Curzon and van Beinum, and then comparing it to other performances to be found on the shelves, confirms, if confirmation be needed, that timing is not everything. Van Beinum launches the work with an opening tutti that is truly majestic, respecting Brahms’s indication ‘Maestoso’ but at a substantially slower tempo than the marked dotted minim=58. Weight and gravity are maintained throughout the first movement, a positive feature that I took to be characteristic of this particular performance. I was surprised, then, to find that in his later recording, conducted by Szell – and which I know well – Curzon takes even nearly a minute more over this movement. Gilels, in his celebrated performance with Jochum, another of my favourites, is even more measured. But you don’t listen to a Brahms concerto with a stopwatch in your hand, you to sit back and allow the composer’s leisurely journey through his musical material to unfold as you revel in it. That is exactly what you can do with this magnificent performance from Curzon, a famously self-critical pianist who recorded little and resisted the release of much that he did record. The first movement’s implacable power is matched by the serenity of the second, a very ‘inward’ performance from both soloist and orchestra, with Curzon successfully bringing out the improvisatory quality of much of the solo writing. The recording is in early stereo, with the piano well placed in the overall sound picture, even if the winds, particularly the all-important horns, sometimes sound a little recessed. A sneeze from a member of the orchestra reminds us that normal human beings produced these wonderful sounds. Curzon launches into the finale with great energy. A particularly felicitous moment is the short fugato passage where, for only an instant, Brahms’s orchestration seems to be imitating Tchaikovsky’s, only to pass the responsibility to the soloist whose appearance in the major key could easily have been written by Beethoven. If I find the finale marginally less involving than the earlier two movements I find it difficult to explain exactly why.
Record collectors are extraordinarily lucky to have so much choice available in standard repertoire. A lover of Brahms’s music cannot have too many interpretations of this concerto on the shelves. In its grandeur, its vision, and its response to the many different facets of this wonderful concerto, this performance is as satisfying as any I know and easily earns its place alongside the readings I have mentioned above, as well as others. If we really must compare, Curzon was, if anything, slightly more flexible and expressive ten years later – though the same cannot be said of Szell.
The two overtures were recorded in mono just a few months before the concerto, and by the same classic Decca team of John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson who were also responsible for the technically superior later Curzon recording. There is a slight harshness and thinness to the sound, and that in spite of its wide dynamic range. Don’t let that put you off, though, as the performances are magisterial. Van Beinum does not linger in the Tragic Overture, and his control of pulse – flexible yet within an integrated framework – is masterly. This is a reading that reveals Brahms’s short masterpiece in all its grandeur and drama. The Academic Festival Overture is, of course, Brahms in unaccustomed ebullient mood. (There are those even among Brahms’s most fervent admirers who cannot take it.) Any impression of stolidity van Beinum and his Amsterdam ensemble might have acquired goes out of the window with this performance. It’s a no-holds-barred reading with the brass, in particular, thoroughly enjoying themselves.