Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 ~ Grimaud
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Wow! This is one hell of a performance! Grimaud has fought hard during her career not to be typecast as a "French" pianist doomed to spend her life playing cute little concertos by Saint-Saëns and keyboard fluff by Satie, and with this performance she really throws down the gauntlet. This is as classically Germanic a performance as you're likely to hear: rock solid, moderate tempos, a gorgeously modulated piano sonority, and a view of the music that perfectly balances passion with classical discipline. She is helped in no small measure by Sanderling, one of the great Brahms conductors of our day, and also by a live recording that catches the whole inspirational event on the wing. This is one of the great ones, make no mistake. --David Hurwitz
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She takes, like Gilels and Gould, an extremely slow tempo in the first movement, balancing its dramatic and lyric elements beautifully while allowing the conductor, Sanderling, the opportunity to distinguish various inner voices and explore various instrumental balances and sonorities in long held passages and chords. The recording balance is amazingly good for an "in-performance" recording. The orchestra which serves in the pit of the Berlin Staatsoper is well accustomed to providing accompaniment, playing with a smooth blended sound that while not quite up to the high standard of the Berlin Philharmonic will still do quite nicely.
The slow movement plays like a meditation with various soloists in the orchestra responding intimately and spontaneously to the pianist. After all the slow reflection of the first two movements, the finale is played at a more conventional lively tempo in keeping with the pianist's interpretation of this concerto as a kind of requiem expressing resolution and life affirmation at its end.
The overall perspective of the recording gives a sense of being somewhat recessed in mid hall with a nicely blended sound as opposed to surgical detail. That may be why some reviewers note the subdued timpani and horns, although I find the conductor has given them sufficient prominence. It's simply a more central-european approach. I highly recommend this to those who love this concerto and wish to explore various approaches to it. This one is quite unusual but rewarding in what it reveals. I note some complaints about the conductor but Grimaud chose him particularly for this concert and recording based on prior collaboration and admits in her notes, that she was fortunate in that he agreed with her on the slow tempo interpretation of the opening movement. Get it if you can. Warner does a poor job of distributing its classical recordings in the U.S. Perhaps you can find it used on amazon or perhaps even a budget rerelease will appear. Don't hold your breath for the latter.
Actually, I was surprised to find that Grimaud's tempos are only 3 min. slower than average in the first movement, 2 min. in the second, and 2 min. in the third, but that's a lot in a work as broad to begin with as the Brahms First. Her Adagio is forceful rather than lyrical, in keeping with her determinaiton not to sound lady-like. Here she's closer to Claudio Arrau than to any other femaile virtuoso. The most conventional movement is the finale, which she and Sanderling seem to agree upon--they match each other in rhythmic bounce and cheerfulness, which makes for an agreeable time and earned my respect far more than what preceded.
In all, I can see why this Gallic powerhouse has a fan club, but I'll wait for other examples of her skill that aren't so hampered by the conducting.
Since the 2014 baseball season is just beginning with Spring Training, I'll turn to a sportsd anaology, concerning Brahms. Suppose you are a former Major Leaguer, n ow retired. You averaged, for 20-025 years 3 hits per every 10 at-bats. That gives you a 300 + batting average for all that time and will land you in every player's dream place, the Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y. But, "3 for 10" also means you fail to get a hit 7 out of 10 times. Still, 3 for 10 is considered very good if done over ling stretches. Well, Her Brahms's averaged at the very least 8 for 10 in every form, chamber, Symphony, choral and solo piano and several songs. AND, he did this for nearly 50 years, or TWICE as long. If anyone belongs in a music hall of fame, it is Johannes Brahms, to be sure.
This Erato release of the Brahms first , played warmly and lovingly by Miss Grimaud, is evidence of this fact. She brings a delicacy and yet a passion to this great work, why, just listen to her 13:27 long Adagio, written, we believe with Clara in mind, to sample her sensitivity and poetry. In her private life, this young lady has a great fondness for for wolves and has become a celebrity spokesperson.
The noted maestro, Kurt Sanderling, of the former East-Germany, leads the Berlin Staatskapelle in this live Berlin recording of October 21 and 22, 1997. Also included is about 1 minute of applause, defining the reception as enthusiastic, which it deserved. Sanderling's long career rolled along behind the Iron Curtain, and when he emerged not that long ago, I had only heard of him occasionally, but now, he is of much interest to me. Partly because of a VERY, VERY good Bruckner 7th on Hassler, and this splendid Brahms, I am always on the lookout for more Sanderling. Here, he is a strong but also gentle accompanist for the pianist, giving her just what she needs to produce a work of this great beauty and majesty.. Grimaud's two handed sonorities are exquisite and so full and rich, why it's almost as if one is hearing the composer himself playing this wonderful work. On a personal note, the very first Chicago Symphony piano concerto I heard was this one, with soloist Misha Dichter, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. In fact, I would go so far as tto say, that, as first concerti go, this is number one, the all-time best. The quality and refinement of this piece are legendary and to have come from a young composer, makes this work all the more grand. the poetry positively soars. Sanderling gives us the true meaning of the tempo marking, "Maestoso," in this opening movement of a gracious 23:50. I can't say as if I've ever heard the Berlin Staatskapelle before but they sound fine to me, and more than competent in this masterwork. Both Alfred Brendel and Claudio Arrau have made wonderful recordings of this epic work both, I believe with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, as well as Rudolf Serkin and George Szell in Cleveland. So , do we NEED another Brahms firstZ? When it is this good, YES. Besides, there is something about a lady pianist in this intensely lyrical and poetic work that seems special. Sanderling provides the right amount of fire, and I think Mr. "Santa Fe Listener" may be a bit harsh in describing the maestro as "asleep at the switch." in his critique. Sir, do you really believe that he is lacking? I must respectfully disagree with you, please comment.
The previously mentioned Adagio is deeply felt and heart warningly played. It is personal and private music, expressed in a most tender manner by Grimaud, only those who have been in love will get her message. I can't help but imagine Hannes and Clara together, sharing the keyboard, talking and laughing and having tea in her home, recalling the early days with loving nostalgia and respect. She remained in love with Robert to her dying days and Hannes, for his part, remained a devoted friend and confidant. One of Classical Music's great stories, one should make it into a movieKatharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid and Robert Walker made a hash of it years ago, but a new one would catch my attention IF Hollywood were to care, which they probably don't. Not enough passion for them. But, no matter, we have the music, and that's enough for me.
The wild and rollicking Rond--Allegro non toppo wraps things up very nicely. One of those Hungarian style finales Brahms was so fond of, it is highly rhythmic and sharp. Grimud plays this final movement with bold and blazing flare that makes it not just another Hungarian rhapsody type of finale. The short and delicate little fugue from 04:58 to about 05:57 are handled brilliantly by both conductor and soloist in material that is skimmed over on many readings, but not here. Grimaud begins her closing in grand style, taking time to emphasize it's epic nature and sublime construction, so that, when it come time to dash to the final notes, they come with much excitement and triumphant realization. bravo, all around, that is a must for every library. Few composers could write with this much sweep and a sort of "royal flare". Tchaikovsky comes immediately to mind as does Beethoven, but to do it at 25 years of age, is miraculous, truly remarkable. BRAVO!!, to quote the Berlin audience. Don't miss this one! God bless you all, Tony.
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