Review by georgeflanagin August 4, 2006 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
|Your reaction to the first piece of Op. 116 will pretty much determine how you feel about the entire 82 minutes, both the recording and the performance. I speculate that your reaction will be either "This is Brahms!" or "This is Brahms?"
Like I needed another recording of these piano pieces. sa-cd.net has had its effects on me. I find discs that haven't yet been reviewed, and I feel this need to buy them. Setting aside the number of "intentional" recordings, some one of the sets of 116-119 is frequently found as a filler to round out performances of either the third piano sonata (Robert Silverman and Emanuel Ax as examples) or padding for one of the two piano concerti (Serkin/Szell/No.2). And then there are the sporadic appearances in concert programs such as Lang Lang's recital disc from Tanglewood on SACD.
And then, we have the music upstairs on the "reference system," as we refer to the grand piano and its operator. 'Nuff said.
According to MDG's ubiquitous denial (which I have seen included with each CD I have purchased from them), they use no post-processing of any kind, and the recording represents their best presentation of the original space and the sound produced therein. This recording combines a reverberant acoustic with the hardest hammers I have ever heard on a D-series Steinway. Franz Schliederer is listed as the technician, and I am willing to bet he did not use his rasp to fluff up the felt even slightly. As a result, the tonal range of the piano is a little compromised. Rather than an error, I imagine that is what the pianist wanted. On the plus side, the piano is wonderfully in tune throughout, and that is certainly as it should be: you can make adjustments every few minutes on pieces of this length, not fifteen minutes along when it is starting to go out.
It is grand and glorious piano sound on the stereo SACD layer. I can only afford one pair of Quads and the amplifiers to run them, so I can tell you nothing about the surround sound layer, other than that this is one of those 2+2+2 layouts, not the 5.1 that most of us have come to regard as the standard.
The recording location is not one with which I am familiar, but my guess is that it is a fairly small hall, and that the microphones were about 4 to 5 meters away from the piano. I base that more on the ratio of mechanical noise to music, and the volume of Elisabeth Leonskaja's breathing than the acoustic of the room.
Ah... but the music.
My first comparison was with Idil Beret's Naxos traversal of these pieces from fifteen years back. Starting from Op 116 No. 1, these two women are worlds apart. Beret's performance is all about phrasing -- it is classic Brahms. Leonskaja's performance is all about rhythm. This is muscular Brahms. This is the energy of a young Brahms setting aside the burden of age, lost love for Clara Schumann and failing health. Other listeners may find this performance strangely inappropriate.
Other comparisons revealed to me just how "out" is this version of Brahms' late piano pieces. The closest is actually Lang Lang on Op 118. I know nothing of Elisabeth Leonskaja's other work, nor is the included bio enlightening. It says she likes to play chamber music with string quartets -- this example of her work does not see like a chamber musician's playing.
Assuming you have other versions of these well worn miniature warhorses, be sure to get this version. Live a little. Have some variety. It is a good disc to put on for guests who have no idea there is anything to legit music except "pressing the proper keys at the proper time." If you can't tell the difference between this version and Luba Edlina's you have heard too much Country and Western.
Recommended more highly than the "stars" would indicate, so long as it is not your introduction to this music.
George Kelly Flanagin
Addendum: I just got my new Fanfare XXIX #6, and I see that on page 79 Peter J. Rabinowitz came away with an opposite point of view about the merits of this disc, both from a recording and a performance standpoint. From several other comments that PJR has made over the many years I have been reading his work, I don't think his hifi is up to scratch. I have felt several times in the past that he is looking for something that will sound OK on a Tivoli radio (of which I have four), so he hears clanging and clutter, where I hear what is going on.
His comments about the playing are more interesting. Rabinowitz concludes with "not recommended." Your money; your call.
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