Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto - Ax / Zimmermann / Haitink
RCO live RCO 17001 (2 discs)
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.
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