AOM Logo January 2000

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Cello Sonata (78)

Emanuel Ax, piano
Yo Yo Ma, cello

Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink

Sony SK 63229

David Aspinall

Every pianist wants his shot at this Everest of piano concertos. Emanuel Ax should not be faulted for succumbing to the temptation. And (if you will forgive me) Ax has the chops. He claims to have played the Brahms second 150 times, and on the evidence of this recording, he understands it about as well as any living pianist. With the advantage of Haitink's accompaniment, we have a performance any Brahmsian can live with. Is it a first choice? I would not want to give up Gilels (with either Reiner or Jochum), or Rubinstein/Ormandy, or Serkin/Szell. The recording, while avoiding the aggressiveness of most digital, seems a trifle muffled, something like listening to a digital recording with your high filter on (a desperation measure I've resorted to more than once). That last ounce of crispness and clarity will decide against this version for many consumers who didn't grow up with analogue.

Therefore, hedging its marketing bets, Sony has given us a Brahms oddity as bonus. And not as mismatched as first thought might indicate. For the piano and cello are again in dialogue, as in the great slow movement of the concerto, and neither is overmatched in this adaptation (anonymous) of the first violin sonata. If in the slow movements of the violin and (second) piano concerto the solo instrument has to share the glory with his accompaniment (neither soloist even gets to carry the main theme!), this sonata places both instruments in a duet of equals. While no one would claim this sonata - whether with violin or cello - is among Brahms' greatest works, it has a rich melodic vein and a density which we are used to in the orchestral Brahms, and is obviously derivative of the master's piano technique. The recording has much more presence than the concerto, which yields the distraction of some audible scraping from Yo Yo Ma. Nonetheless, I will be keeping this disc.

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