Like Scott Morrison (the reviewer below me), I wish this series would continue for years to come. I really cannot express the profound impact that this Naxos Four Hand series has had on me - I virtually discovered Brahms's music through it! Thus I'm still hoping for future releases; maybe we could get the Piano Concerto No. 2, the Double Concerto, or even the Violin Concerto. This particular recording will be a magnificent finish, though, if the series is indeed concluded.
Brahms's massive and gorgeous D minor Piano Concerto is in the top five of my favorite Brahms works. I had my first taste of this large-scale work through the one piano version on Vol. 9 of this series. Naturally, like hearing any other Brahms masterpiece for the first time, I was completely enthralled and gratified. The quality of music aside, the virile and sonorous atmosphere on the piano had a lasting impression on me. I was reminded once again why piano transcriptions and arrangements should not be condemned as hackwork. And now with this present recording of the two piano version of the Op. 15, I'm convinced this work attains the highest degree of power through the medium of two pianos. Since first hearing the concerto through Vol. 9, I've explored the normal piano and orchestra version from Gilels. But Matthies and Kohn have created such a tremendous pianistic success that I don't think I'll be reaching for Gilels again.
The ominous opening, with its mighty octave-doublings and deep resonating bass, is more resounding and effective than the orchestral blur that pervades the normal version. The ubiquitous trills that Brahms injects as part of the texture are also more clear and enriched through the delicious tones of the piano. I simply cannot find a tedious or lackluster moment in the first movement, which spans an epic 24 minutes in length. And I don't see how anyone could be unmoved or dissatisfied with the overwhelming grandeur that the dual pianos create. In the second movement, also wonderfully effective on two pianos, Brahms's music becomes noble pathos. The threnodial mood and sublime silences seem all the more expressive through the reverberations of the pianos' strings. Matthies and Kohn's impassioned delivery certainly add credence to the arrangement's worth as well. Even more imposing is the magisterial last movement, where Matthies and Kohn let loose some volcanic splashes and energetic splurges. Their interpretation is not much different from the one piano version on Vol. 9, although their tempo here is faster. Those familiar with the one piano version on Vol. 9 should find enjoyment in noticing the harmonic differences and the individual elaborations of each piano part.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Joachim's Demetrius Overture, having remembered my disappointment with his Hamlet Overture on the previous volume. Fortunately, Joachim manages rather well here, producing more agreeable and focused ideas than in the Hamlet Overture. While the fluctuating and impetuous nature of the music makes it difficult to follow, Joachim's ideas are emotional and dramatic. Indeed, it's the intensity and intrepid modulations that make the work more engaging than any melody it contains. In short, it is a better example of Joachim's compositional skills than his Hamlet Overture. And even though I've never even heard its orchestral version, I'm confident both Brahms's arrangement and the piano duo help bring out the best in this music.
Bottom line: The two piano version of the Piano Concerto No. 1 is a phenomenon in demonstrating the versatility and unique powers of the piano. Matthies and Kohn remain unconquerable and fully inspired to give us great renditions of Brahms's music through the piano. Let us hope this is not the end, but if it must be, it's a grand conclusion to this magnum opus Four Hand Piano series.