Twenty-two years passed before Johannes Brahms tackled his second concerto (Opus 83), which was well received by critics, after a rather unkindly received first piano concerto (Opus 15). Recorded interpretations of the first concerto are usually melancholy and somber, as if the weather in northern Germany had been doomsday when it was written. In contrast, the second concerto is almost flooded with southern light, which Brahms probably still carried in his heart after his second trip to Italy when he finished composing this concerto in Pressburg near Vienna. In any case, the second concerto lacks the heaviness of the first concerto, and interpretations have been recorded which, like a recording from the 1940s with Vladimir Horowitz, accompanied by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, spread almost heart-warming sunshine.
It may be that the first concerto, in the rather somber key of D minor, did not flow easily from Brahms' pen in terms of piano and orchestra under the circumstances of its rather complicated genesis and therefore does not come across as cheerful. Thus, this work was originally intended to be written in the form of a sonata for two pianos. However, since its conception exceeded the expressive capacity of two pianos, the young Brahms tried to conceive it as a symphony, but at that time did not yet possess the necessary instrumentation skills or did not trust himself to possess them.
The almost crushing heaviness that seems to weigh on the first concerto, here and there also on the second concerto, also has something to do with the interpretive attitude of pianist and conductor supporting the heaviness, with the huge orchestration and not least with the sound power of modern grand pianos used for the concerto. The new recording of the two Brahms piano concertos avoids any heaviness or somberness throughout. This is achieved by the pianist's and conductor's preferred, much lighter approach to the presentation of this magnificent music and the use of a historic Blüthner grand piano from the period of the first concerto's composition. Regarding this approach, András Schiff remarks in the booklet of the Brahms album, "The music of Johannes Brahms is not ponderous, coarse , thick and loud, but quite the opposite, transparent and sensitive, dynamically extremely differentiated and shaded. The orchestras of Leipzig and Meiningen preferred by him at that time were moderately staffed; Hans von Bülow conducted 49 musicians in Meiningen, of which only nine were first violins. In addition, Brahms especially appreciated the grand pianos from the workshops of Streicher, Bösendorf and Blüthner, instruments that are several light years away from the omnipresent and omnipotent Steinways of today. They are more transparent, more vocal, and richer in overtones thanks to the parallel arrangement of the bass strings."
Indeed, in this new recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment and András Schiff, who plays the piano part and conducts the orchestra in personal union, the two Brahms concertos sound completely new and exciting, because here the image of Johannes Brahms is set straight, who did not write music of which the first concerto can hardly be said to be full of heaviness and melancholy, but rather - even in the first concerto - music that is "transparent and sensitive, dynamically extremely differentiated and shaded," in other words, a true Brahms. A decisive contribution to the successful approach is made by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, which plays chamber music throughout, its string instruments using gut strings, its winds contributing finely graduated colors, and its timpani setting slender accents. Last but not least, this Brahms album owes its incredibly authentic sound to sound engineer Stephan Schellmann, who is fully in tune with the goals of the conducting pianist.
This album of Johannes Brahms' two piano concertos is an absolute must for all who revere and love this composer.
András Schiff, piano
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment