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CD of the Week – Brahms performed by friends and colleagues

Behind the Notes: Brahms performed by friends and colleagues
Arbiter

My upstairs neighbour Eleanor Rosé, who died in 1992, was taken as a child to meet Johannes Brahms. Greeted by a large man with a long beard, she assumed he was God. In 1890s Vienna, she was not alone in that supposition.

The aura attached to Brahms is still greater than to any other symphonist, Beethoven excepted. A recent youtube recording of the pianist Ilona Eibenschütz talking about the great man does more than just compel the viewer’s attention: it commands it. Eibenschütz (1872-1967) appears on Arbiter’s retrieval of archival rarities, playing three Brahms Intermezzi and a Ballade with a seriousness almost too great for these slight pieces to bear.

Yet, while she plays, the listener imagines that she is playing them for Brahms himself and the reverence becomes both appropriate and approval-seeking. This may not have been how Brahms wanted his music to be played, but it was undoubtedly how up-and-coming pianists played them to him. Two other Brahms pianists, Etelka Freund and Carl Friedburg, offer similar solemnity, although Friedburg grows robust with noisy confidence the further he gets into the early E-flat minor Scherzo.

The main course on this album is a 1936 Berlin radio recording of the D-minor concerto by the long-forgotten Alfred Hoehn, conducted by the aged Max Fiedler, whose friendship with Brahms was long and close. The tempi in the opening movement can lag to an extreme, but there is beauty and profundity in this account, especially in Hoehn’s Adagio soliloquies. Get over the scratchy, recessed orchestral sound and you will find this lost performance indispensable.

The closing piece on the disc is history in motion: Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s lifelong champion, playing the first Hungarian Dance in 1903. Joachim’s violin tone is forthright and he displays no false humility. When Joachim played for Brahms, it would seem he pulled no punches.

Some Chopin competition winners and losers

Michel Block: The Spanish Album
Piano Classics

Block was a Mexican whom Arthur Rubinstein backed for second prize in the 1960 Warsaw competition, only to be vetoed by the bloc of Soviet judges. Block plays De Falla, Granados and Albeniz in a manner unheard since Rubinstein himself – full of fun and sun, fascinating from first touch.

Garrick Ohlsson plays Granados
Hyperion

The conjunction is unexpected and Ohlsson sounds a little heavy in the Goyescas, as if he’s unable to decide how imposing these pieces ought to sound. Ohlsson won the 1970 Chopin contest and is an outstanding interpreter of mainstream romanticism.

Rafal Blechacz: Debussy, Szymanowski
DG

The 2005 Chopin champion, the first Pole to win in 30 years, is delicate with Debussy and down-to-earth in Szymanowski. The playing is pinpoint, lacking only the last degree of warmth and character.

Yundi Li: The Red Piano
EMI

The 2000 Chopin laureate plays some of the splashier works of Chinese Communism, starting with the exhortatory Yellow River Concerto. The effect is rather like watching a brain surgeon cutting stale bread.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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