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Brahms' piano concertos newly recorded

Together with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO) conducted by Constantin Trinks, Michael Korstick recorded the two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms over four days in September 2023 at the Teldex Studio in Berlin. With this production, the well-rehearsed Korstick-Trinks team follows on from the highly successful recording of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos, which was released in 2022. The Brahms concertos were recorded over four days in the Teldex studio in Berlin, in eight two-hour sessions, about two thirds of which were playing time, a good 600 minutes in total. The two concerts together last 100 minutes.

The new double CD will be released in spring 2024 on the hänsslerCLASSIC label.

Here you can see a video of the recording in Berlin.

“Without these two works, my musical life would simply be inconceivable” (Michael Korstick)

The two concertos for piano and orchestra by Johannes Brahms occupy a special position in the development of the solo concerto in the 19th century – particularly due to their eventful reception history – and are among the pinnacle works of this genre today.

Michael Korstick describes the creation of the two works:

When the young Brahms sought the limelight with his first major compositions in the early 1850s, a religious war was raging in the musical world over questions of form, harmony and the significance of program music. During this decade, two opposing and essentially irreconcilable parties gradually emerged: on the one hand, the “conservatives” from the circle of the Leipzig Conservatory founded by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy with the protagonists Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, and on the other, the group of “future musicians” around Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, who from 1859 were to take up the cause of the “New German School” coined by Franz Brendel. The not yet 20-year-old Brahms, an aspiring pianist from a modest background in Hamburg, naturally had little to do with these aesthetic debates. His own fully-fledged first works, the Piano Sonatas Opus 1 and 2 and the Scherzo in E flat minor Opus 4, are stylistically and formally based on Beethoven and firmly rooted in classical harmony, despite their individuality. Characteristic innovations can only be found in the strikingly compact piano writing. At first, the young composer simply followed his inner voice, regardless of any trends.

It is therefore entirely logical that in the summer of 1853 – even before his 20th birthday – Brahms enthusiastically seized the opportunity to travel to Weimar on the initiative of his violinist friends Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim (who was already highly famous despite his young age) in order to make the acquaintance of Franz Liszt, whom he greatly admired as a piano virtuoso, not least in the hope of finding a publisher for his works with Liszt’s support. However, this visit was not under a good star, as Brahms allegedly arrived in Weimar in an exhausted state, or at least extremely nervous and tense. So it happened that when Liszt kindly asked him to play something, he declared himself unable to do so. Liszt then took his visitor’s manuscripts and played the E flat minor Scherzo and parts of the C major Sonata at sight, making a few praising and critical remarks, but ultimately did nothing to help Brahms find a publisher. Incidentally, it is known for certain that Liszt played his new sonata in B minor on this occasion. However, the fact that Brahms is said to have fallen asleep on this occasion and that this led to a break between the two should be relegated to the realm of legend, as Brahms remained in Weimar for a further twelve days and received a silver cigarette case with an engraved dedication (which mistakenly spelled his name “Brams”) from Liszt on his farewell in all honor.

Brahms still had the greatest admiration for the pianist Liszt (“Anyone who has not heard Liszt cannot really have a say. He comes first, and then nobody after him for a good while. His piano playing was something unique, incomparable and inimitable.”), but could do little with Liszt’s music and came to the conclusion that he simply did not fit into this circle and did not want to. But a few months later, at Joachim’s insistence, he was to pay a fateful visit to Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf, which Brahms had hardly expected after his experience in Weimar, but which was to steer his musical life in new directions. So it remains a fascinating mind game to speculate what form Brahms’ piano concertos would have taken if his encounter with Franz Liszt had turned out differently!

Happy faces after the recording: Michael Korstick with conductor Constantin Trinks, producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and sound engineer Thomas Bößl

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