Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Schumann: Piano Concerto

Jorge Bolet / Klaus Tennstedt

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Schumann: Piano Concerto Review

by James Leonard

This 2009 BBC disc adds a new work to the slim discography of Klaus Tennstedt. Best known for his Mahler and Beethoven recordings, the charismatic East German conductor recorded little Brahms in his brief career in the West before he died in 1998. This May 6, 1990, performance of Brahms' First Symphony from London's Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is his only extant recording of the work, and it's stunning. True, Tennstedt's reading has its flaws. Important downbeats are somewhat smudged, and when the going gets tough, the orchestra's ensemble will sometimes get shaky. But these are small flaws when measured against the majesty of Tennstedt's interpretation. Here is a heroic Brahms' First, one that strives mightily and succeeds magnificently, one that is not afraid to feel deeply in the Andante nor to quote freely from Beethoven in the finale. Throughout the performance, Tennstedt's rhythms are powerful while his tempos are agile and the combination creates a sense of flowing inevitability that can only be compared to earlier masters like Knappertsbusch or Furtwängler. The London musicians are not quite up to their leader's challenge; the strings occasionally waver and the brass too often crack, but anyone interested in the conductor or the piece is urged to try this first-rank performance.

The coupling, unfortunately, is not of the same quality. A recording of Schumann's Piano Concerto from October 7, 1984, from the Royal Festival Hall by pianist Jorge Bolet with Tennstedt and the LPO, it is a decidedly second-rate performance. The responsibility for this is primarily, indeed, almost exclusively, Bolet's. Though the Cuban-born pianist's pearly tone and poetic interpretations are in evidence in the opening Allegro's achingly lyrical second theme and in the whole of the dreamy central Intermezzo, his technique is simply not up to the demands of Schumann's virtuoso piano writing. In the clattering chords that start the work and the wayward cadenza that concludes the opening movement, Bolet's sloppy playing brings the performance dangerously close to unlistenability. Tennstedt and the London musicians give him all the support they can, but the performance as a whole is fatally compromised by Bolet's technique. Taped in stereo, both recordings are clear and present, though with perhaps a bit too much ambient noise.

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