Brahms. Piano Concerto no. 1. Piano Concerto No. 2.

Garrick Ohlsson, piano, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Tadaaki Otaka conductor
2 CDs, MSO Live, ABC Classics 481 0409
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2014

Wilhelm Backhaus recorded the Brahms piano concertos several times, his last go at the second when he was 84. When asked what the difference was from when he first recorded it in his thirties, he is reported to have said “It’s the same, only slower.” Technically he was as immaculate as ever. A tad extra space let the themes breathe just a little more deeply, the structure showing even more clearly that this has no peer in the whole concerto genre. *

It seems that audiences and performers alike either embrace Brahms with a passion or leave him alone.

Garrick Ohlsson, pianist

Garrick Ohlsson, pianist

The MSO’s timpanist is rather too passionate through the introduction to the Brahms Piano Concerto no 1. The beats and rolls shoot the starter’s gun to open this movement, radical for its time and still a wake-up call. If only conductor Tadaaki Otaka had ensured that the winds and strings got equal billing, or maybe toned the drummer down just a fraction and balanced the competing forces, all would have been very well.

With Brahms, it’s all about the tempo. Too fast, the themes and modulations lose impact. Too slow, the flow of emotion can become tacky.

Ohlsson and Otaka set their antenna to Brahms’s (and my) wavelength. My personal acid test is whether the l’istesso tempo moment in the second movement of the B flat makes me cry. It did. No idea why.

Cellist David Berlin gets a credit in the sleeve notes, well-deserved for his note-perfect, sing-along  solos opening and closing the Andante. No such acknowledgement for the horn, alas – just as worthy, not only for the magic eight notes that  encapsulate the spirit of the whole second concerto, but for numerous patches embellished and enlivened by the distinctive hoot.

Ohlsson’s power evokes frequent reminders of the composer’s own huge hands. Even more impressive is the delicacy of his twiddly bits. Such laughingly good fun, the diddle-diddle dum figures of the second (right way up) and fourth (upside down) movements.

His empathy with his orchestral colleagues is evident at every link point, and probably one (among many) reasons why these performances were deemed worthy of preserving on disc.

He and I parted company briefly over the tempo of the D minor Adagio. Beautifully phrased, but too slow for the piano to sustain the crucial legato. And Brahms has no need for rubato.

But we are still friends.

*Marc-Andre Hamelin says so too.

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