At music school, we used to call anything before the Baroque period "pre-music." Sometimes we'd even lump the drier Baroque stuff in there. The original instruments movement presented a vexing contest between the instruments Bach composed on versus how the music sounded today. Now, some of our most prominent musicians embrace original instruments in ways that seemed unthinkable back then. András Schiff doesn't need to buff up his reputation, he's got a secure profile. His Brahms concertos in an 1859 Blüthner piano show just how intimate and gentle these pieces can sound.
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 intelligence 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.
The trick, as Brahms 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.
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.)
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.
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...