I listened to a fantastic recording of Brahms’ monumentally Romantic 1st Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, yesterday. I have had to wait until now because my self-inflicted journey through the history of music has only just got me up to 1859, the year of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s masterpiece, and this, Brahms’ first major piece for orchestra. I have been increasingly impatient about getting on to Brahms who with his important classically-controlled antidote to Wagnerian/Lisztian excess, still manages to stir us to our core and challenge our powers of musical concentration too.
I knew that this version would be great because of all the awards and praise that has been heaped on it since it was released a few years ago. I bought it then but it has been waiting til now for its first spin. The great American pianist Nelson Freire is the soloist with a lush sounding orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester from Leipzig in Germany, conducted by that dramatically-minded Italian, Riccardo Chailly. The other work on the disc is Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto in B flat major, Op83, “the concerto” to my mind – sadly I shall have to wait even longer before tasting that delight.
Being a bit of a Brahms fanatic, I do actually own a number of recordings of these two pieces, both of which command attention with their size, weight, complex construction and powerful emotion. Friere and Chailly are masterly and the concerto, of course, even though it is “young Brahms” is it’s own musical universe. Nothing though prepared me for the shere glory of the sound of that, for me, new digital recording.
Maybe it is my imagination but there is something especially exciting about the way new advances in recording have managed to capture the physical excitement of that most thrilling of instruments, the concert grand piano. I remember a similar sensation when first listening to the Alfred Brendel/ Simon Rattle recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos when they were released nearly, I guess, ten years ago now.
I have one of those cobbled together sound systems made up from various posh, second-hand components which in my floor-boarded living room, makes music sound certainly as good as I will ever want. Yesterday, with Nelson’s Friere’s poetically muscular pianism, I left this world totally for the duration of the piece’s full 46 minutes and 34 seconds.
The recording was made at live concerts given in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus concert hall between 2005 and 2006 and I urge anyone who hasn’t heard them to rush out immediately to buy the cd or to download it if you can.
Noticing that it was recorded in Leipzig, I wondered if part of my joy in the piano sound came from the fact that Leipzig is the home of one of the World’s two greatest, and my favourite, piano manufacturer, Bluthner.
I don’t know if Mr. Friere is playing a Bluthner but it sounded like that to me and reminded me of that day when I had my first piano lesson as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. It was love at first touch when I played my first chord on the 9 foot concert grand that practically filled the room. I am not worthy, I felt but still plunged in with relish. It was Brahms that day too and I shall never forget the physical rush as my fingers pressed down on those perfect ivory keys.
Others love with equal passion motor vehicles like the Lamborghini, the Porsche or the Rolls Royce and just like Harley Davidson motorcycle fans lovingly dismantle and reassemble their engines, I have the same attraction to that great machine invented by Julius Bluthner (1824-1910) in Leipzig during the second half of the Nineteenth Century.
People loved the rich sound that the instrument makes, strong and mellow at full volume and clear but rich when played pianissimo. It is a joy to listen to as well as being a physical pleasure of almost obscene proportions when you actually sit down and play.
The secret, apparently, was in Herr Bluthner’s invention of the Aliquot String – forgive me going all motor mechanic on you for a moment. The Aliquot String is an extra string attached to the more normal three strings that sound when each note on the piano is played. This fourth string isn’t struck when the hammer hits the other three, it merely vibrates adding a depth to the sound. If you are ever near a piano shop and they have one of these beautiful instruments, ask if you can give it a test drive – you will not be disappointed even if you can’t play the piano.
Short of that, and as I say , I don’t know if it is a Bluthner or not in Mr. Freire’s exciting recording, but listen to him playing the Brahms Piano Concertos it is more exhilarating than any ride in a fast car….of course if you have a Lamborghini, a cool sound system and a spare seat, just drop round and take me for a ride…that might be just perfect. I would drive it myself but you might not like that!