Ably abetted by the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, András Schiff has stripped back Brahms’s warhorse Piano Concertos to their essentials and the results are revelatory.

Andras Schiff

Schiff’s choice of a Blüthner grand piano dating from around 1859 (the year in which the First Piano Concerto was premiered) is both apt and inspired. Pianophiles will want to know that the model number is 762, the largest instrument the venerable Leipzig-based firm had built until then. With straight-strung bass strings (modern grands are cross-strung) its voice is characterised by a powerful, singing tone, while its branded “patent action” allows for a lighter but more controlled touch from Schiff enabling fine-spun textures and a rich, natural colour palette.

Those qualities are well to the fore in this first coupling of the concertos on disc to present both on period instruments, and only the second to feature the soloist as conductor (Lars Vogt’s Ondine recordings with the Northern Sinfonia the first).

The D Minor First Concerto, Schiff notes in his booklet introduction, has “always been a pillar of my repertoire”, having first played it aged 17. So, the clarity of line, tonal precision and lucidity that is immediately evident from the startling, stentorian drama of the opening should come as no surprise. What does catch one unawares is the measurably slower metronome signature employed here. Despite being marked by Brahms on the original manuscript, printed editions have inexplicably omitted it. It is just one of many ear-grabbing moments in what follows.

If Schiff’s Blüthner sounds more delicately pristine to contemporary ears attuned to its modern successors, it lacks no less muscle, punching through orchestral heft with agile, effortless ease. It comes into its own in the intimate and tender Adagio where the OAE’s beautifully blended yearning strings and luminous woodwinds make telling contributions of their own.

And in the thrilling Rondo finale where Schiff’s dexterously nimble touch transforms the piano line into a subtly modulated but compelling peroration, its still strikingly original coda transporting you to another place altogether.

It is in the Second, B Flat Concerto from 1881 (22 years after the First) that the Schiff-OAE partnership comes into its own with a blaze of youthful romantic ardour that wholly becomes the more mature Brahms. If a performance can be simultaneously meticulous and barnstorming, this is it. Witness Schiff’s artful negotiation and easy dispatch of the fiendishly challenging cadenza in the Beethoven-inspired opening movement, and the orchestra’s alert and responsive accompaniment, illuminated by the bewitchingly sylvan horn solo.

Soloist and orchestra are in perfect accord in the ensuing Chopin-like Scherzo, each taking their allotted time in the spotlight with spry, marvellously balanced and reciprocal aplomb. The swooning Andante is treated to a reading of chamber-like dimensions, cello, bassoon, oboe and clarinets all seamlessly positioning themselves within Schiff’s sumptuous artisanal shaping of the whole and his craftsman’s attention to telling detail. Delivered with vigour and vitality, the magisterially paced, rousingly realised finale can’t be bettered for its judicious regard for mood and sheer rightness of sound.

Manfred Eicher’s production exploits the Abbey Road acoustic to the full, spotlighting moments of whispered poetry and framing declamatory drama with finesse. Schiff’s introduction is complemented by Peter Gülke’s detailed and informative notes. In a word: essential. 

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Composer: Brahms
Works: Piano Concertos
Performers: András Schiff p, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Label: ECM 485570