Saturday 13 February 2016

Praga Digitals release a fabulous Claudio Arrau live recording of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelík coupled with the Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel

The great Chilean pianist, Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) was a child prodigy, apparently able to read music before he could read words. At the age of four he was reading Beethoven sonatas and he gave his first concert a year later. By the age of eight Arrau was sent on a ten-year-long grant from the Chilean government to study in Germany, travelling with his mother and sister. He studied at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin where he became a pupil of Martin Krause, who had studied under Franz Liszt. By the age of eleven Arrau could play Liszt's Transcendental Etudes as well as Brahms's Paganini Variations. After the death of Krause, Arrau did not continue formal study.

Highlights of his career included a celebrated performance of the entire keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach over twelve recitals in 1935 with the following year bringing a complete cycle of Mozart keyboard works over five recitals. Complete Schubert and Weber cycles followed as did the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos in Mexico City in 1938. Arrau repeated this several times in his lifetime, including in New York and London. In 1941 the Arrau left Germany for the United States, eventually settling in New York City. Arrau died on June 9, 1991, at the age of 88, in Mürzzuschlag, Austria.

Amongst many fine recordings Arrau’s Brahms Concertos with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for Philips were a highlight.

However, Praga Digitals have just released a fabulous live recording of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto recorded in Munich in 1964, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelík coupled with the Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel recorded in Lugano in 1963.

Stereo SACD
PRD/DSD 350 068

Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra give an opening to the Maestoso of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op. 15 hewn from granite. When they soon slacken the intensity, there is still a remaining underlying storm out of which they rise again. When he enters, Arrau brings a concentrated powerful authority, rising to passages equally granite like. Arrau and Kubelik are clearly in control of the overarching structure of the music bringing a natural rise and fall. There is something that is just right about this tremendous performance. Set with the power and strength are moments of lovely repose, Kubelik drawing some fine, quite special orchestral playing and Arrau finding much poetry. Arrau finds a youthful vigour and power as well as a fine sense of the longer line before a formidable coda.

Kubelik brings a pensive, beautifully shaped opening to the Adagio to which Arrau adds a beautifully withdrawn touch, a reflective look at the drama that has gone before. They rise to little moments of greater intensity with Kubelik drawing some quite exquisite playing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Arrau brings such a fine poise, a gentle rise and fall, beautifully paced and phrased. As the movement progresses this pianist seems to find greater solace, though still without losing moments of power and anguish before arriving at the hushed coda.

Arrau leaps into the Rondo: Allegro non troppo with the orchestra chasing, providing some formidable scales.  Arrau and Kubelik bring a ray of light to this movement with some particularly deft orchestral playing with a great rhythmic forward flow. There are some fine dynamic forward surges as the movement develops before a wonderfully fluent and well-shaped cadenza.  There is a terrific clarity to later passages that lead up to the coda where Arrau brings some formidable moments.

This is a phenomenal performance in every way. The enthusiastic applause at the end of this live recording is retained but otherwise there is little evidence of a live audience.

Praga have done a terrific job of re-mastering this recording for SACD. If you love this work then don’t miss this.

Arrau brings a lovely poise to the opening of Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a theme By Handel, Op. 24 with such fine little decorations before leaping into the variations. After the D minor concerto Arrau’s sense of fun is terrific. As he works his way through the variations there are passages of freely flowing breadth, dramatic power where he finds a terrific fire, passages that bring a great sense of freedom as well as some wonderfully rhythmic moments. It is Arrau’s ability to change mood so suddenly that is impressive. At times he brings an unstoppable forward motion, a wonderful breadth of phrasing, tremendous fluency and a fine poise and poetry. There is lovely phrasing and often a sense of sheer audacious fun, all forming an organic whole. A tremendous achievement.

If anything the recording of the Variations and Fugue is even finer. 

This will be an unmissable release for many. It is listed as a ‘limited edition’ so better snap it up while you can – just in case. There are useful booklet notes about the music, Arrau and Kubelik. 

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