Purists may snub this Naxos series that features Brahms's symphonies, overtures and chamber music presented on the medium of piano. But I couldn't think of a more valuable and meaningful project than to record Brahms's piano duet versions of such quality works as the Second and Third symphonies. For pianophiles like me, it is a boon to have recordings of Brahms's high quality music performed by an adept and passionate duo like Matthies and Köhn. However, it is important for any potential buyer to acknowledge that these arrangements do not pretend to rival the original versions, although I could make a strong argument that they often do. Brahmsians seeking to gain further intimacy with his works should be ecstatic over these four-hand piano arrangements, which are Brahms's own and not the careless product of mediocre editors.
Brahms's D major symphony, sometimes referred to as his "Pastoral" symphony, has rich melodic ideas and clear scoring that make it readily attractive on the piano. After the lackluster premiere of his C minor symphony, Brahms chose, for his Second Symphony, to swim in tranquil and even cheerful waters... perhaps literally; he composed this work in 1877 while staying near the Wörthersee, a renowned lake in Austria. The Second Symphony's first movement has gorgeous lyricism reminiscent of Beethoven and the piano duo render each moment like they were savoring an original piano composition of Brahms. The ghostly adagio of the second movement is sublime: the gentle melodies are almost idiomatically suited to the piano. I could say the same for the wild third movement, comparable to a lovely Beethoven scherzo, and the last "Allegro con spirito" movement. The last movement roars, with its colossal bass registers, leaps of chords and the sheer energy exhibited by Matthies and Köhn.
The Third Symphony, composed in 1883, is often the subject of extreme adulation or criticism. Some view it as his ultimate Romantic symphony, full of grandiose music, heroic visions, and surprising virtuosity. Others find it tedious, sagging, and full of shoddy and muddy orchestration. I am of the former camp and believe it Brahms's best symphony, but through this piano version, I have come to appreciate the work even more. In fact, I prefer to hear it on the piano. The first power-charged movement echoes like a grand piano sonata; the seductive second movement discharges an aural blanket of serenity that the piano amplifies with greater success than the orchestra; the third movement contrasts a wonderful yearning theme with a light allegretto section that Matthies and Köhn treat beautifully. And then there is the voluminous last movement, which recalls the thunder and lightning of the first; its seriousness and gravity make for intense piano music. Brahms's thick orchestration may be absent, but the piano duo extracts amazing sonority from their instrument.
Bottom line: Matthies and Köhn are an extraordinarily talented duo, capable of rendering these four-hand arrangements in such a way that I never longed for the orchestra. Indeed, I could be contented to hear Brahms's Second and Third symphonies on the piano and never listen to the orchestral versions again(!). I'm naturally a pianophile, but I feel Brahms's four-hand arrangements are convincing and superior specimens; all Brahmsians should find this recording a refreshing experience.