Chopin's two piano concertos have long been admired more as pianistic vehicles than as integrated works for piano and orchestra. But in his revelatory new recording, Krystian Zimerman suggests otherwise: The opening orchestral tuttis have so much more light, shade, orchestral color, and detail, you wonder if they've been rewritten. Every gesture, every instrumental solo is so specifically characterized that by the time the piano makes a dramatic entrance, the pieces have become operas without words.
The old model for creating a hit classical recording – big-name soloist plus big-name conductor in major repertory work – is not so common anymore, but this live Brahms recording from the Staatskapelle Berlin under Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel, with Argentine-Israeli-Palestinian-Spanish pianist Daniel Barenboim as soloist, shows that there's life in the concept yet. One could point to the virtues of pianist and conductor separately: it's a rare septuagenarian who can combine power and clear articulation of detail the way Barenboim does, and Dudamel builds a vast sweep in, especially, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15. But it's the way that the two work together that really makes news. Chalk it up to shared South American heritage or to whatever the listener wants, but the way the orchestra and piano define separate spheres and work them together is extraordinary. Again, it is in the Piano Concerto No. 1 and its Beethovenian drama that their mutual understanding is most evident, but there is a sense of great variety powerfully unified throughout.
Edvard Grieg will always be remembered as the composer of the highly effective Piano Concerto in A minor, and his incidental music to Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. However, it is as a miniaturist that Greig's true genius lies. Grieg was a very capable pianist, and had in fact made his early career as a concert pianist, his songs and solo piano music form the heart of his output. The early piano sonata although interesting shows clearly why the less restricting forms of the miniatures for solo piano suited his genius. The Lyric Pieces and Peasant Dances display his keen ear for traditional folk music, matched probably only by Bartok and Kodaly. The 66 works that comprise the 10 books of Lyric Pieces date from 1867 to 1901, and are extraordinary, exquisitely crafted works that can stand comparison to any of the great sonatas of his contemporaries. This 7 CD set includes the complete Lyric Pieces, the Sonata, The Holberg Suite and the lesser-known piano works of this great composer who captured the very essence of his native Norway in music.
It was an eminently sensible decision to couple Zimerman's previously separate Chopin concertos on a single CD. The Ax/Ormandy/RCA disc is the only rival as a coupling, so let me say at once that in different moods I would be equally happy with either. The main difference, I think, is the actual sound. From DG we get a closer, riper sonority, with Zimerman's piano much more forwardly placed. Both orchestra and piano are more distanced on the RCA recording, especially Ax's piano. This, together with Ax's lighter, more translucent semiquaver figuration (and sometimes his greater willingness to stand back and merely accompany—as in certain episodes in the F minor Concerto's finale) often conjures up visions of Chopin himself at the keyboard, and we know he was often criticized for insufficiently strong projection.
Brahms (1833-97) devoted much of the 1880s to his three Piano Trios, having decided, as he told a friend, that there was “no further point in attempting an opera or a marriage”. They are among his less familiar chamber works. He originally wrote No 1 as a young man, overhauling it more than three decades later in 1889. All three works – the B major Op 8, C major Op 87 and C minor Op 101 – have a tender, shadowy intensity, without quite the same heart-on-sleeve fervour of the bigger chamber works. The string players here – brother and sister Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff – are regular quartet partners. Together with sensitive pianism from Lars Vogt, ensemble is alert, accurate, never forced: already a favourite CD.