Born-Again Brahms

Born-Again Brahms

Written by Tim Riley

The intrepid Hungarian pianist András Schiff has pressed against received wisdom since indulging in Bach early on and rarely programming any Chopin (a cornerstone of any pianist’s repertoire). You can count his 1989 recording of the first Brahms concerto (with Georg Solti) as a solid if unremarkable release. But his Romantic impulses tilt more towards Schubert (his tempting sonata cycle on the London label), his emotional anchor soars with Beethoven (complete sonatas on ECM), and his modernism leaves off at Bartok. Schiff focused on Schumann long before much of Brahms, he doesn’t go near Liszt, and programs a lot of Scarlatti. Such relatively conservative taste now skews adventurous as he approaches 70.

Among many such traditionalists, the Early Music movement proved easy to disparage. Advancements in musicology trailed artistic depth, and most performers stick with the modern Steinway. And yet the better modern players sponge fascinating ideas from period practice. When violinist Pamela Frank released her Brahms Sonatas with Peter Serkin in 1998 (on London), she toned down her vibrato for intriguing contrasts for clean, singing lines that didn’t sound glazed in molasses. (Her 2011 Beethoven Violin Sonata cycle with her father, Claude Frank, gave up similar artistic bounty.)

Now, Schiff turns heads with a period-informed Brahms recording based on immersion into an 1859 piano with pre-Steinway action. He’s figured out how the size and depth of the orchestra (with gut strings) can enhance and illuminate this material.



Some history: by 1859, Johannes Brahms had suffered through his idol Robert Schumann’s suicidal leap into the Reine and slow decline and death inside a psychiatric ward in 1956. Brahms served as a confidant to his widow Clara as he developed his compositional voice, a huge talent wrestling with outsized ideas and even larger ambitions. He composed several early masterworks, but he hadn’t yet written a symphony even as his pretensions gained authority. And while he knew he had the ideas and determination, he suffered what the literary critic Harold Bloom would later dub “the anxiety of influence.” How could he possibly write for orchestra with nine Beethoven symphonies looming behind him? After Schumann’s death, Brahms relocated from Düsseldorf to Hamburg, where he had grown up. He worked like a fiend, and bore down into these challenges with an epic patience.

Instead of leaping into the symphonic deep end, he held in place; instead of full-fledged orchestral works, he wrote a piano concerto and then two Serenades (symphonies more in form than content) before spending ten years on his Symphony No. 1 in C major, which premiered in 1876. And through this wary, churning patience, he figured out how to turn that anxiety into one of his great subjects.

The trick, as he saw it, was to approach the symphony through concertos for his primary instrument, and transform the pairing into a new kind of symphony, with the soloist and orchestra carrying equal weight, instead of a soloist with mere backdrop. His first Piano Concerto in D minor started out as a two-piano piece, but quickly outgrew its format to demand greater forces. At the premiere in 1859, the audience felt intimidated: at the second performance, the musicians had to talk pianist Brahms out of leaving the stage after the frosty response to the expansive first movement.

This first Brahms concerto has entered the standard repertoire as an unwieldy piece for even the greats, and on classic recordings from Rudolf Serkin or Leon Fleisher (both with George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra), you sense a titanic struggle between player and the music’s strenuous demands – gigantic hand leaps, bundles of notes with trills on top, and formidable passagework to wear down the most acrobatic fingers.

For this recording, Schiff gives an illuminating performance on a period Blüthner piano that approximates the sound Brahms himself would have heard, with only 60 players in the orchestra playing gut (instead of the brasher modern steel) -stringed instruments.


These lighter, less boomy forces cleanse these scores with a miraculous ease, and the effect is like taking in a restored Rembrandt. Where Brahms can sound thick and overripe, here the music turns transparent and glowing. A central irony of Brahms’s work lies in how even his large-scale symphonies require a chamber player’s alertness, an intimacy between players that only comes from eye contact and rigorous listening.

And this very special Blüthner piano has other advantages: while the grand piano design had just adopted a steel casing, these early models retained a lightweight tone. The Steinway innovation of “crossing over” the bass strings soon boosted the bottom end, added heavier steel, which projected more sound into ever larger halls. But this also robbed the instrument of a delicacy our modern ears need adjusting to.

In the Second Piano Concerto (1882), composed between his Second and Third Symphonies, the intricacies between player and ensemble gain complexity. In the second concerto’s lunging second movement, the string breakthrough (Allegro appassionato, CD 2, track 2, at 4:38) sounds less like a starburst than confetti that sprinkles color over all the previous momentum. When the pianist responds with a hair-raisingly difficult sequence of octaves (5:10), you hear how much easier, and how much more fun, it is to play on this period piano: the keys were actually narrower, making the leaps and note clusters manageable instead of prolix. The effect has charm and ease where most modern recordings convey forced resolve.


This recording begs new questions: how much of the heavy, molten Brahms we’re accustomed to came from the industrial scale of instruments he never wrote for? When we encounter this new Brahms, this more original and detail-oriented line writing provides new appreciation for the originality of his voice and a more relaxed conversation with history. For an uneasy, fast-moving era where composer and audience both put Beethoven at the center of everything, Brahms sounds more like a natural extension of the classical period, instead of a brooding, furrowed-brow Romantic.

Scholars can use this performance to reevaluate Brahms’s reputation as an orchestrator, long considered one of his weaknesses: too much doubling, not enough tonal variation, and perpetual balance problems both from within the orchestra and between ensemble and soloist. So many of these problems disappear here under Schiff’s direction; you can know these pieces inside out and suddenly hear new inner voices, lines that had been buried, and colors that never quite bloomed.

Through all this, Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have a grace and humility that serves both the music and its new textures. We might even start thinking of Brahms as –egads – light-hearted.


First page of the second movement of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D minor op. 15.


Header image of András Schiff courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Alexander Böhm.

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