But the weekend, from last Saturday to Monday night this week, was a great weekend for Brahms, with Usher Hall performances of his Violin Concerto by the Tonhalle Orchestra from Zurich, with the outstanding Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist, and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus singing the composer's German Requiem, all conducted by David Zinman.
Now these works, and their presence in the Edinburgh Festival, are not actually the trigger for this week's column but, given the composer's dominant presence, as it were, over the weekend, let's spend a few moments with that man Brahms. A few months ago (June 30) I reviewed a "new" CD release of a radio recording made in the early 1960s. Principally, the focus of the CD was an early-ish recording of Schumann's Cello Concerto, made by Jacqueline du Pre when she was about 18. It was a Berlin Radio recording from a pioneering young artists-type project which asked the invited youngsters to construct their own programmes, which would feature them as soloists.
Du Pre shared the disc with a young Argentinian pianist, Bruno Leonardo Gelber, who played Brahms's First Piano Concerto. And it was Gelber's performance of the Brahms that was the trigger for this column. I adore the First Piano Concerto. I think it's a greater piece (if done well) than the better-loved and more frequently played Second Concerto. I do not know one single other person, whether pianist or music lover, who agrees with that.
That's just tough on me. I believe the First Concerto is a colossal masterpiece. It has completely blown me away for more years than I can remember. I know every note of it and can "play" the entire piece, orchestral accompaniment and all, in my head (a peculiar habit I have long had, but which I refined around a decade ago in hospital during a long illness).
The concerto is vast. It's in the usual three movements, but it runs at an enormous 45 minutes. It's not merely symphonic, it was the biggest concerto of its type (and in its majestic ambition) since Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. It's a young man's composition. Brahms spent four years writing it. He was around 26 when it had its premiere performance in Hanover with himself as soloist. It was sympathetically received, but young Johannes had his eye on the big time: a prestige performance in Leipzig in 1859. Leipzig was the heartland of musical performance. It mattered. The concerto bombed and Brahms was hammered in the press. The piece was "a composition dragged to its grave". It had "nothing to offer but desolation and aridity". And so on. Brahms was hissed.
It didn't take long for the concerto to win admirers, and gradually it worked its way into the repertoire. It's still not as widely regarded as the Second Concerto and, not for the first time, Brahms himself didn't really help by admitting he was "still experimenting and feeling my way", thus giving his critics the opportunity to view that as an admission of failure.
For many Brahmsians, the greatest recording of the concerto ever made is the Decca classic of 1960 with Clifford Curzon as soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the fiery George Szell. Others have come, some have stayed. But not one has held a candle to that great performance, magisterial interpretation and outstanding recording. Until now. The young Gelber has all the physical power, all the stamina, structural command and breathtaking intelligence and articulation that characterised Curzon's legendary performance. Further, it is a live performance, and it feels it every semiquaver of the way. It's not a rival to Curzon, of course, but it's a superb partner. It's on the German Audite label, and I commend it to you.