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Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) was described as ‘King’ and ‘Emperor’ of the keyboard. His daunting regality but no less deep humanity also prompted a reference to ‘Atlas holding the universe aloft.’ It is therefore hardly surprising that both the Brahms piano concertos were at the heart of his vast repertoire. Considered insufferably heady and opaque after the once fashionable offerings of, say, the Hummel concertos with their chandelier sparkle, Brahms’ scores imposed an infinitely more demanding and inclusive kind of virtuosity. And it is in Brahms that Arrau shows his supreme command, in music where he lives and breathes every note, demonstrating matchless eloquence. In the First Concerto his entry reminds you of Donald Tovey’s description of music as profoundly expressive as anything in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, or of that moment in the Second Concerto where ‘you seem to hear the beating of mighty wings’. Others may be lither and more mobile (Horowitz took exception to Arrau’s legendary breadth – ‘Ugh, so slow!’) and you will look elsewhere for a dancing lightness in the Second Concerto’s ‘great and child-like finale’ (Tovey again). But these are toweringly great performances of a commitment and seriousness rarely encountered today.

In Beethoven, Arrau’s distinctive, instantly recognisable voice (that holding back at the apex of a phrase, the equivalent of panting for breath) is less to the fore and his readings are both transparent and rock-solid. There is characteristic over-emphasis in the Third Concerto’s Largo and he can bear down heavily on the Schumann Concerto’s more fragile poetry. But in Brahms he is supreme prompting a memory of his aggrieved exclamation, ‘Some pianists, they play all lacey!’ Arrau was never a ‘lacey’ pianist.

Bryce Morrison Read the full review on Agora Classica

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