What a piece! A real handful for the pianist and an earful for the listener.
I took a cheap cassette featuring the pianist Homero Frankesch to Münster, Germany, with me for my year abroad and must have listened to it 200 times in those nine months. When he actually came to that city to play that piece, I went both nights. The first night I bought a student ticket. The second night I went in after the intermission and heard it again. During the first movement he got flustered and blundered through several measures before landing on his feet again. That show of humanness impressed upon me how hard the piece must be. The second night he played it beautifully.
As with any piece of classical music, there is a huge difference in the listening experience, depending on the acoustics - can you compare listening to a bad recording on a Walkman to the thrill of a live performance in a concert hall? The notes are all there, but I learned that I had a hard time hearing and feeling them all unless I was in a concert hall.
Once when I was working in a record store, where I was responsible for the classical music sales, a customer took me to his home so I could listen to the difference between a cheap pressing of Van Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and a half-speed master version of the same recording. I sat in the listening chair and he played the first recording on his $5000 stereo. It sounded much better than it did on my $700 stereo. Then he played the other and the difference was amazing. And yet, I asked, why didn't he just go to a live concert if he wanted it to sound as if he were in a concert hall. "With all the people coughing and talking? No thanks," he said. I can now understand him.
Back to Brahms. The piece has accompanied me all these years, winning a place as my favorite music to write by. It is so "beschwingt" - exhilarating - that I just want to jump around while the first and last movements are playing. The Scherzo is nothing if not profound, and the cello solo in the third movement never fails to make me smile.
When Yefim Bronfman played the concerto in Richmond, I was allowed to go to the rehearsals, where Neil Cary played the cello solo. Once Neil came to my apartment on Valentine's Day to play a Bach Cello Suite for my girlfriend and me, so I especially enjoyed hearing him play soli. Needless to say, the virtuoso Bronfman had no problems with the concerto, passing over the technical difficulties with a smile and pulling out the musical delights with delight.
My favorite recording these days are with Vladimir Ashkenazy (Haitink/Vienna) and Maurizio Pollini (Abbado/Vienna). However, I have come to love Elisabeth Leonskaja's interpretation (with Masur/Leipzig) since having the opportunity to hear her several times live here in Germany.