Pianists rise to brilliance with challenging concertos Brahms: Recordings made by Backhaus, Pollini, Fleisher and Kapell are memorable.

Classical Sounds

January 18, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The concertos of Brahms are among the piano's greatest challenges. The composer's just-concluded centennial was celebrated with a number of recordings that give listeners the chance to hear some of this century's great pianists compete against each other, and sometimes -- in cases when they recorded these pieces more than once -- against themselves.

Few pianists were more closely associated with the music of Brahms than Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969). EMI has just reissued (in its References series) most of the recordings Backhaus made of Brahms' music in the 1930s, including his first versions of the concertos.

Backhaus had one of the most comprehensive techniques in the history of his instrument, an architectural sense of musical form and a style that -- while tending to the plain-spoken -- was never indifferent. His 1932 version of the Piano Concerto No. 1 is superior to the one he made about 20 years later for the Decca-London company. In the second movement, particularly, there is a warm, inner glow.

The recording of the Concerto No. 2 is even better. One suspects that Backhaus was closer to this piece he recorded it three times and programmed it more frequently than its predecessor. In the 1939 recording, he plays with enormous affection for the music and with a technical mastery that makes light of its dauntingly filled chords, wide stretches and leaps.

The pianist was even more magisterial when he recorded the Concerto No. 2 for the third time, 27 years later, at the age of 83. This performance, with Karl Bohm leading the Vienna Philharmonic, has just been reissued in Decca-London's "The Classic Sound" series, along with the same artists' 1955 performance of Mozart's Concerto No. 27. The performance of the octogenarian Backhaus is astonishing; he played more brilliantly at an advanced age than any other pianist in history.

But comparison with a broadcast performance made in 1964 (with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic) demonstrates that age had begun to take its toll on Backhaus' powers by 1967. He would have been better served by a Decca reissue of his 1953 recording (with the same orchestra and conductor Carl Schuricht). That performance by the 70-year-old Backhaus ranks among the greatest ever made one that commands the music's gigantic proportions with ridiculous ease, as well as penetrating into the heart of its lyricism.

A pianist whose sense of classical form sometimes reminds one of Backhaus is Maurizio Pollini. The Italian pianist, now 55, has been performing Concerto No. 2 since he was 14, and his record company, DG, has just issued his second recording of it. Pollini plays with imperial command, but Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic fail to match the pianist's ardor or precision.

Abbado accompanied Pollini better (with the Vienna Philharmonic) in a 1977 recording, and, fortunately, DG has released that recording in an inexpensively priced two-CD set that includes Pollini's performance of the Concerto No. 1 (with Bohm conducting the same orchestra). What is less fortunate is Bohm's contribution to the First Concerto, which fails to catch fire from the soloist until well into the first movement.

One of the great concerto teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the Cleveland Orchestra's music director, George Szell, and the (then) young American pianist Leon Fleisher. Sony Classical has reissued their recordings of the Brahms concertos (with Fleisher's performances of the composer's "Waltzes" and "Handel" Variations) in the mid-priced Masterwork Heritage Series.

These are formidable, brilliant and serious readings that remind us what a loss to the music world was Fleisher's retirement (because of an injury to his right hand) from two-handed playing. The pianist's logic, fire and precision never permit the listener to feel that the music's destination is ever in doubt.

That characteristic could sometimes be too much of a good TC thing in Fleisher's playing. That's the conclusion one draws from comparison of Fleisher's version of the Concerto No. 1 with a 1953 broadcast performance (on the Music and Arts label) by pianist William Kapell and Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic.

The loss of Kapell he died six months later at age 31 in an airplane crash was a tragedy for American pianism. His performance is as brilliant and profound as Fleisher's, but the degree of freedom and flexibility he brings to the solo part makes it even more exciting. Compared with that of Kapell, Fleisher's performance sounds like that of a much older man who had made up his mind about this restless music long before he recorded it.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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