Emmanuel Despax Sweats The Small Stuff In Brahms’ D Minor Concerto

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

As the printed timings accurately suggest, Emmanuel Despax and Andrew Litton favor broad tempos for Brahms’ D minor concerto, in the line of Zimerman/Bernstein, Barenboim/Barbirolli, Grimaud/Nelsons, and Tirimo/Sanderling. Litton sustains the first movement’s opening ritornello by cogently delineating the gnarly orchestration. However, Despax’s entrance indicates his frequently fussy and small-scaled solo work that will prevail throughout the performance, especially regarding his tapered phrase endings, little caesuras,
and rhetorical stresses that impede the music’s natural flow.

In the Adagio, Litton sets gentle sail and maintains fluid transparency despite Despax’s editorializing. Granted, Despax gives lovely shape to the Rondo’s trills and descending scales, yet the underplayed, dynamically constricted results undermine the music’s surging rhythmic energy. It’s not just a question of tempo, for the even slower (albeit less well recorded) Martino Tirimo/Kurt Sanderling interpretation boasts far more elemental force and forward thrust. In short, you’ll want this Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 more for the steadfast conductor rather than for a soloist who sweats the small stuff.

Despax and his duo piano partner Miho Kawashima bring impeccable ensemble values and refined balances to the 16 Waltzes. There are plenty of arch phrasings and tricky voicings, such as No. 3’s overly dramatic climax, or No. 5’s secondo part to the fore on the repeats. On the other hand, No. 6 is appropriately light and impish, while the players get out of their own way and render No. 12 simply and directly. On the back sleeve, Signum indicates a total playing time of 87 minutes; in reality it’s 72 minutes.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Concerto No. 1: Freire/Chailly (Decca); Fleisher/Szell (Sony); Donohoe/Svetlanov (Warner), Waltzes Op. 39: Beroff and Collard (Warner)

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