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BRAHMS: Piano Concertos 1 and 2. Ballades. Klavierstucke

Gerhard Oppitz, Bavarian Radio

Symphony Orchestra / Colin Davis

(RCA 09026 61620-2: two CDs)

STRONG hands at work: Gerhard Oppitz positively straddles the opening maestoso of the D minor. As Paul Dukas once said of Brahms, there's plenty of 'beer and beard' in the manner, but also a magisterial command of rubato that might have been written into the line.

Grand tuttis, ruggedly underpinned, mark out Sir Colin Davis's contribution, his cultured Bavarian Radio Symphony as smooth and full-bodied as a mature claret. Tempi feel organic - there is breadth, but muscularity and impetus; and real depth of sonority, nowhere more than in the mighty chordal sequence sounded out at the climax of the slow movement.

But something is missing - something out of reach in the realm of charm and fantasy. A heaviness pervades. Not even the finale of the Second Concerto ever really relaxes enough to smile. Oppitz is an impressive, serious player. But the expression is uniformly earnest, the features, if you like, a little fixed. At the end of two very substantial discs, his reading of the Klavierstucke, Op 76 is conspicuous more than anything for a lack of real variety in the assortment. ES

GERHARD OPPITZ has lived and breathed Brahms for most of his musical life. Just as importantly, he approaches the two grand, public concertos in the recording studio after having first saturated himself in the private world of the solo piano music. Especially in the Second Concerto, Oppitz can switch from big concert hall to chamber mode effortlessly.

He has an ear for the kind of detail that doesn't always travel to the back rows of the stalls, and he evidently enjoys chamber-like intimate exchanges with the excellent Bavarian Radio soloists. Going straight from the end of Second Concerto into the first of the Op 76 pieces is more like a short step than a leap. Davis must take some credit for that too; although his contribution is powerful, weighty and eloquent, it is never unduly self-assertive. Oppitz's soliloquies are the heart of the matter.

But the concertos are also big, heroic concert works, and if Oppitz can adopt the grand manner, I don't think he quite manages it here. Tension sags a little in stormier passages. When Brahms pits the piano against the orchestra, I get the feeling that Oppitz would rather be out of the ring, meditating quietly. This is a fresh, individual perspective, though, and worth hearing. Recordings serve Oppitz's approach well, though I'm surprised the violas' collective waywardness in No 1's slow movement passed the editing stage - not the best moment to fluff. SJ

JANACEK: String Quartets 1 and 2. DVORAK: String Quartet No 10

Vanbrugh Quartet

(Collins 13812)

TRUE love never did run smooth. But for Janacek it could probably have been measured on the Richter scale. These startling quartets are about as close as we get to the inner man: passionate, fiercely contradictory, vacillating wildly between the lyric and the disruptive. They live on their nerves and play on ours.

And so do the Vanbrugh Quartet. The emotional close-ups here are big and intense. These are nowhere-to-hide performances. Quartet No 1, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' after Tolstoy, after Beethoven, is desire unrequited with even the false gaiety of the second-movement polka repeatedly violated by terrible sul ponticello ravings. Not a pretty sound. Gregory Ellis's eloquent violin solos (the inner voice of Tolstoy's doomed heroine) stand out here amidst the disintegration of the finale, galloping as it does to an unseemly end.

His intonation is almost alarmingly accurate in those searing ascents to the extreme upper reaches. Equally, the ravishing viola-led 'love letters' of the Second Quartet are writ large. And just when you are thinking that they will never again find repose, off comes the pressure and out rolls Dvorak's blissfully uncomplicated E flat Quartet. Suddenly we are listening to a different group, free and easy, content to just sit back and let it happen. At least, that's the illusion. ES

SCHOENBERG wrote that Webern's Bagatelles for string quartet expressed 'a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath'. In a way that's just as true of Janacek's two quartets. On paper you see the same phrase repeated with just a tiny tweak of an interval or inflection of tempo. In performance it can be like an entry into another expressive world - another moment of unique self-revelation.

Perhaps it's impossible for one performance to get to the heart of every detail. And anyway there's a counterbalance: the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of feeling - direction is as important here as in Beethoven. The Vanbrugh manage that balance unusually well, I think. Perhaps they fall short of the old Janacek Quartet recordings in pained tenderness, and the Lindsays on ASV are more stirring in a key moment such as the final, desperate crescendo of No 1. But there's a rich expressive palette here, and the feeling that each quartet has a story to tell.

The charming, affectionate, but essentially strong performance of one of Dvorak's least deservedly neglected quartets is a big plus. Dvorak was rarely as directly confessional as Janacek, but the Vanbrugh hint at private feelings behind the nationalist manners, especially in the gorgeous Romanza - why do so many quartets still ignore it? SJ