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Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto - Ax / Zimmermann / Haitink

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto - Ax / Zimmermann / Haitink

RCO live  RCO 17001 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto
Schumann: Piano Quartet No. 1

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
RCO Chamber Soloists
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernhard Haitink (conductor)

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 2, 2017

It was high time for a high resolution release of Brahms’ first piano concerto. For this one the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra management has delved in its archives and has now issued, on its own label, a 2010 live recording with Emanuel Ax at the piano and with its honorary chef, Maestro Bernard Haitink, at the rostrum, together with another 2010 live Brahms violin concerto Op. 77 with Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist. As both do not fit on one disc, it was decided to spread the two over two discs, adding as a sort of bonus a more recent recording (June 2016) of Schumann’s Piano Quartet Op. 47. For this Ax is joined by the RCO Concertmaster, Vesko Eschkenazy, the principal of the second violin section, Henk Rubing, playing the viola, and the principal cellist, Gregor Horsch. All in all a ‘tableau de troupe de premier ordre!’

Question is: Why did RCO wait for so long to release the two concerti? No clear answer is available, but I could imagine that it served to coincide that “on 16 February 2017 Bernard Haitink was promoted to Commander of the Order of Lion of the Netherlands, one of the highest and oldest civil orders in the Netherlands”. Certainly a befitting tribute to this 87 year old maestro. But whatever the case, it’s the music that counts.

Starting with Brahms violin concerto: Zimmermann possesses the maturity and the technical skills to let the difficulties disappear in a monumental performance of one of the greatest masterpieces of the late traditional romantics, drawing out the long melodious lines, glowingly supported by the orchestra. In the first movement seamlessly alternating engaging force and beguiling charm, subtly unfolding a beautifully shaped Adagio in the following one, and concluding the concert with an inspired finale, putting the right accents, thereby outclassing many of his contenders. The audience could not have asked for more. Applause follows, 'live' obliging!

I did compare with Hilary Hahn, whose 2001 Sony recording with Sir Neville Marriner and his Academy of St Martins in the Fields had, at the time, been selected by The Grammophone as the best available interpretation. Her rendition surely is passionate. But on second reflection and in relation to the RCO’s engaging playing, it is a bit on the tame side as far as the orchestral part is concerned. I compared as well with Julia Fischer on Pentatone. The excellent ‘rapport’ between her and Kreizberg is evident, making her's a prime hi-res choice, be it that she seems to prefer a what ‘softer’ and more delicate approach than Zimmermann.

As for Brahms first piano concerto: Emanuel Ax has a brilliant track record covering more than thirty years of excellence. And he quite often played with Haitink at the helm of the orchestra (Boston, Berlin, Dresden). A winning team one might say. And that’s precisely what one gets in this performance. Hurdles to overcome are such that perfect companionship and full understanding of each other’s views are, in my opinion, a prerequisite 'sine qua non' to arrive at a satisfactory result.

The long orchestral introduction, at times sinister and ominous, prepares the ground for the soloist (biding his time as discrete as possible behind the piano) to introduce a change of mood, timed and trimmed to perfection, with bold lyrical lines, reminiscent of Kovacevich’s famous rendition (EMI 1994 RBCD), to which I often return.

Much is said and suggested about Brahms’ relation with Clara Schumann and there is little doubt that the Adagio plays a role, or, as the liner notes suggest, a double role, in expressing feelings towards Clara, whilst mourning at the same time for the passing away of a dear friend. Like Kovecevich, Ax grasps the inner meaning and gentle perception, so lovingly accompanied by Haitink and the RCO. It closes a chapter, giving way to an exuberant rondo played with devilish virtuosity. Stormy applause is the reward of the audience.

The only other recording in genuine high resolution Brahms: Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 - Rittner, Ehrhardt is geared to period instruments and practice lending itself hardly for a reasonable comparison.

In the light of foregoing praise it is all the more disappointing that the recording does not do full justice to both concerti. The sound lacks warmth and in the roomy surround, it is not so easy to pin point instruments, while the depth of the soundstage remains marginal. In this particular case stereo sounds better than multi-channel. One would have wished for RCO having chosen to record in DSD rather than PCM. Moreover, in Brahms' violin concerto the violin has been given prominence, what some may like, but the close recording makes breathing at times audible. Fischer’s reading has the better sound and better integration with the orchestra, but does ultimately not reach the same level of Zimmermann.

Addressing the bonus: Emanuel Ax and the Chamber Soloists of the RCO treat us with a superb Schumann Piano Quartet Op. 47, it is very well played and fit for any up market ‘salon’. However, it misses the passion so clearly in evidence in the interpretation of the Mozart Piano Quartet & Paul Rivinius (piano) Brahms, Schumann: Piano Quartets - Mozart Piano Quartet. As for comparison with Trio Parnassus Schumann: Piano Quartets - Trio Parnassus, which obtained a ‘Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik’ (in 2006 or thereabouts), I agree with John Broggio that, whilst their playing is impeccable, the result is bland and at some points even a trifle boring.

A mixed bag? Yes and no. The violin concerto is one of the best around and the piano concerto has no competition. The Piano Quartet is as good as several others and is, therefore, a not to be neglected bonus, especially for those who are on the look-out for one. On the other hand, and mostly for reasons of sound, I don’t think that we have here a definitive version of Brahms first piano concerto many of us have so anxiously been waiting for.

Despite my remarks I’m confident that there remains much to be enjoyed, and possible buyers should not altogether be put off, the more so because one gets the two for the price of one! Performance stars on average.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Comments (15)
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Comment by Adrian Quanjer - February 2, 2017 (1 of 15)

At last! Brahms' first piano concerto in what looks like a more than decent performance.

Comment by Luketsu - February 2, 2017 (2 of 15)

Indeed! Though, we have this one: Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 - Dichter/Masur

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - February 3, 2017 (3 of 15)

It's not the same in terms of interpretation and sound

Comment by john hunter - February 8, 2017 (4 of 15)

And two!!Rubinstein/Reiner /CSO on Living Stereo. Only stereo though.

Comment by hiredfox - February 10, 2017 (5 of 15)

The main point Adrian is making is that all the other releases are re-treads or lowish fi PCM, this is the first in true hi-res albeit 192/24

Comment by fausto kantiano - February 12, 2017 (6 of 15)

indeed, as hiredfox says, and in addition to that, with all due respect but the Rubinstein performance doesn't stand up to scrutiny, i.e. compared to Arrau, the Pollinis, or Curzon. I'm not familiar with Ax, but at least we've got Haitink as conductor!! And the always excellent Zimmermann for the violin concerto to boot!
Let's hope Myrios does indeed issue a Gerstein Brahms cycle. That would be a real treat (in DSD).

Comment by William Hecht - February 16, 2017 (7 of 15)

Ax did a superb Brahms 2nd with Haitink back in the bad old days of rbcd. I still listen to it periodically. His 1st, with Levine, was good but not outstanding.

Comment by Bruce Zeisel - February 20, 2017 (8 of 15)

I second Fausto's desire for more Brahms on Myrios.

Comment by fausto kantiano - February 22, 2017 (9 of 15)

well, in fact Stephan Cahen (the man behind Myrios) kind of suggested that a Brahms #1 and #2 with Gerstein is on the cards. But first there is the Hagen/Gerstein disc with Brahms string qt op. 67 and the piano quintet, which I look forward to (it seems to be imminent). See his comments here: Mozart: String Quartets 14 & 17 - Hagen Quartett#comments

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - March 3, 2017 (10 of 15)

I’d like to make a comment on my own review. Neither the musical quality of the violin concerto nor that of the piano concerto is here at stake. Both are first rate. It’s the recorded sound that gave me a headache. RCO live uses the services of Polyhymnia, and we all know how good they are. The booklet states (colophon) that the recording is 96 KHz. I take it that this means PCM 24/96. But even though it is not DSD full HD, I found the difference with Pentatone’s recent Elgar/Tchaikovsky disc with the cellist Johannes Moser, which I happened to play before listening to this one, so huge that I couldn’t possibly give more than three stars. Pour ‘acquit de conscience’ I compared with an OEHMS Mahler recording from 2011: The same huge difference in sound. Much more detail, wider sound stage and more depth. Instruments were individually recognizable. DSD diehards know all this.

[And besides, not being a ‘tech-head’, I prefer to trust my own ears rather than information given. Some DSD recordings are of a shameful quality and I have many PCM recorded stuff which sound excellent].

The point I’d none the less would like to make is that, depending on the quality of one’s play back equipment, the differences needn’t be all that big. I think I have said this before: The better the quality of the system, the good discs sound better and the not so good ones sound worse. At the end of the day, people with a moderately good system, listening in stereo, will perhaps not even detect the huge difference.

Comment by fausto kantiano - March 8, 2017 (11 of 15)

thanks, Adrian, for the balanced review. Though it tempers my initial enthusiasm about finally having a new recording of the Brahms #1, I shall purchase the disc and see what I'll make of it.

Comment by hiredfox - March 9, 2017 (12 of 15)

Picking up on Adrian's comments about SQ the problems faced by Polyhymnia at the Concertgebouw have been well documented on here and SA-CD.net.

In a nutshell, RCO concerts are broadcast live in the Netherlands and because of restricted space Polyhymnia have to share recording facilities with the the local radio broadcaster and so constrained to using PCM.

As many know, early RCO Live recordings were recorded in 64fs DSD presumably because Polyhymnia were then able to use their preferred recording systems in parallel with whatever the local broadcaster chose to do but the aforementioned cramped conditions eventually resulted in having to use shared facilities and compromise. RCO Live switched to 96kHz PCM.

The most recent release from the RCO Live label, Gatti's "Symphonie Fantastique" has been recorded in DXD which many of us regard as the next best thing if you cannot have DSD. This is as strong an indication as we are ever likely to get that Polyhymnia regard PCM recording at 96kHz or 192kHz for that matteras a poor man's hi-res even if mch succeeds in masking some of it's limitations.

As a stereo listener who is fortunate to be able to use a high end playback system the SQ contrasts between DSD and PCM at any sample rate are stark. Not really surprising when you consider that DSD is quasi-analogue in nature. I have recently up-graded my SACD player to a Marantz SA-10S1 which reads the DSD signal from a disc and keeps it in the DSD domain throughout the audio chain, the D/A converter being replaced by a simple proprietary filtering system that eliminates any need to convert signals to PCM for processing. The results are simply stunning.

Comment by john hunter - April 3, 2017 (13 of 15)

Received mine yesterday. Thought the Violin Concerto didn't sound too bad at all.
Orchestra a bit flat but the violin nicely focussed.
However immediately I put on the Piano Concerto I was struck by the flat gray sound.
When the piano joined it, it had no presence what so ever.
A shame given we are hardly spoilt for choice with Brahms No1.
I have the Living Stereo Rubenstein which is nicely recorded and played but sounds like a run through.
Still the sound on the SACD's is better I would think than on the usual red book cd's from Universal, etc.
Performances can be recommended.

Comment by hiredfox - May 5, 2017 (14 of 15)

Something very strange about these discs as the concertos were recorded in 2010 but not previously released. We can only speculate as to the reason why unless we hear from Polyhymnia. Having played the second disc last evening I fully concur with the view that something was very much amiss during the recording of the Brahms PC. The balance is all over the place and spoils the recording.

At first it seemed it might not have been a live performance but the final applause seems to scotch that theory. It seems to me that multi-takes were involved and the best bits stitched together in final editing as the recording quality is very inconsistent section-to-section? The soundstage balance seems very inconsistent and maybe over adjusted during sessions? All big question marks.

Which is a pity as Ax produced a more than adequate performance on the night and the piano tone is excellent.

OK, I am a collector of the RCO Live series so can accept a sub par disc now and then because it is such a rare thing from Polyhymnia but this one must carry a 'buyer beware' caution for other colleagues.

Comment by hiredfox - May 7, 2017 (15 of 15)

Chalk and Cheese!

Frank Peter Zimmermann's performance of Brahms Violin Concerto (Disc 1) is outstanding in every way and beautifully recorded. Zimmermann plays with supreme control and his pacing is perfect. He is possessed of a wonderful bowing technique eliciting beautiful sounds from his instrument that is compelling from start to finish. Haitink's accompaniment is sympathetic and perfectly timed and weighted, often outstanding. This recording surely is a serious contender for best version on SACD and once again begs the question of why it has taken nearly seven years to release the disc?

If you buy this 2-disc set on the basis that you are really buying a very fine version of the Violin Concerto with the second disc- poor as it is - thrown in for free then you will not be disappointed. There are one or two audience noises that have not been edited out and RCO Live have included the audience applause at the end which delights this listener but may not please others. In the context of realism it only adds to the sense of "being there".