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Brahms’ two piano concertos are monumental tests of stamina for any soloist. Piano lovers expect them to sound ursine, but not to recall the title of a droll orchestral work by the Czech composer Julius Fučík, translated as ‘The Bear with the Sore Head’ (Der alte Brummbär). Recorded in 2011 and 2013, before and after Maurizio Pollini’s 70th birthday, these concertos find the virtuoso in relatively good form (though most would agree that Pollini’s first recording from 1980 of the D minor concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic led by Karl Böhm is more representative of the Italian’s artistry).

On these two more recent occasions, the conducting is by the German maestro Christian Thielemann, who favours muddy-textured, ominous sounds, as if the Brahmsian bear were afflicted by migraines. Overindulgent, stretched-out orchestral tempos, teetering on the edge of flatulence, further reduce vivacity. Pollini manages to singlehandedly maintain the momentum and forward-leaning impulse of these works, but such heavy lifting seems an unreasonable burden for a soloist in his age group. This becomes particularly apparent in the B-flat major concerto, where at times he seems to brood fretfully over the keyboard. Op 83 is a pitiless test of endurance, with heavyweight demands on the musculoskeletal frame. Neither concerto, it must be said, is a friend to old pianists. Thielemann’s wandering and divagating drain the energy even more.

Fortunately, the artistry of Pollini in his prime is well preserved on CDs and DVDs, and future listeners need not rely on these lesser efforts to understand why he has been so justly applauded by generations of audiences. 

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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