How do you like Brahms to sound?
For me, it must be played with full, rich, warm tones - after all, it is weighty, expressive and truly romantic music - and the many passages of extreme delicacy and utter beauty must be brought out too.
So what about this recording? I would say that this recording amply fulfils all those requirements. Dealing first with my absolute favourite of all piano concertos, Brahms' second, this recording (for me personally) outstrips all others that I have heard (YES, even the widely acclaimed Gilels/Jochum/BPO on DG: Brahms: The Piano Concertos; Fantasias Op.116
There is such beautiful sound - the opening solo horn, the solo cello in the 3rd movement, not to mention Ashkenazy's tone on the piano. Ashkenazy exacts so much power from his keyboard without whacking the thing to death or giving us a horrible, harsh tone - for me, Gilels does not do so well in this respect, when comparing the two readings. Ashkenazy has a beautifully warm and weighty sound; every note resonates as it should. The piano holds its place with fine, firm tone against the orchestra in the louder, more energetic passages, yet also sounds with such sensitivity and delicacy in the 3rd movement, and the "quiet after the storm" in the second movement. (Sample the from 5'40'' to 6'10'' in the second movement to see what I mean - what a beautiful melodic line in the right hand set against the arpeggios in the left!).
I also love the execution of the opening of the piece - that lovely resonant sound of the bass notes, almost at the very extreme of the keyboard, which answer the horn. Then there are the dense, virtuosic passages, in which Ashkenazy characteristically delivers clarity and excellent voicing. What energy and excitement too! And then there are the trills - astonishing! This is the kind of playing and tone quality Brahms piano writing should receive, especially in the second concerto, of all pieces.
So what of the orchestra's playing? The Wiener Philharmoniker, as you would expect, play superbly - what beautiful string and brass sections! Haitink's interpretation is marvellous. Decca have given us an excellent digital recording in capturing this marvellous account.
I do have a few very minor niggles about this recording. Firstly, the staccato notes in the right hand of the piano, just after the first entry of the woodwinds and strings in the first movement, don't really happen, but it sounds good nonetheless. (Incidentally, Gilels does a little better here, but there's not much in it). Secondly, had the first and second violins been separated, then those dialogue runs of descending scales in the first movement would have been yet more effective.
The playing of the first concerto here is perhaps not quite as good, but I feel no need to buy another, as it is not by any means bad. It is very powerful in places, and the last movement suites Ashkenazy's style of playing. The interpretation seems more restrained, like Ashkenazy is holding back a little. Some prefer the first as a work itself, but I feel it is (despite being a grand work) marginally eclipsed by the second concerto.
The fillers here are good - Ashkenazy conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in the "Haydn" and "Handel" variations. The Handel variations were orchestrated by Edmund Rubbra from Brahms solo piano variations in the style of Brahms' orchestration of the Haydn variations - an interesting listen. Both are well played, although the Haydn is a little quicker than usual, but I quite like the tempi chosen.
So why do I prefer this interpretation of the 2nd to the Gilels/Jochum? I mentioned the sound on the piano first of all, which is very important. I also feel the playing of the whole piece is better with Ashkenazy and Haitink, the other seems rough in some places. The finale in particular is far superior in Ashkenazy's hands - it is Hungarian-sounding, as it should be (like his recording of some of the Hungarian dances with Perlman on EMI: Brahms - Violin Concerto; 4 Hungarian Dances
- also a strong recommendation). I found Gilels not very convincing in this movement. For me, Ashkenazy and Haitink manage to serve a fuller palate of passion, power, beauty and relaxing serenity throughout the whole piece, which is the quality in Brahms' music that is so appealing to me. Let your tastes be your guide...
All in all, this is one of my favourite disks - one that I will never tire of, and will return to time and time again. I would recommend this recording above any other to anyone looking for an exceptional performance of the Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto. For quality of playing, beautiful sound and good price - I feel this is unbeatable!
[Decca's website has 1'30'' samples, if you want to hear previews]