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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor (1858) [45:56]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major (1881) [49:56]
Nelson Freire (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 22-26 Nov 2005 (No.2), 13-18 Feb 2006 (No.1). DDD
DECCA 475 7637 [45:56 + 49:56]

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There is, of course, no shortage of truly great recordings of these two masterpieces in the present catalogue, but itís fair to say there are also a number of pretty dire ones alongside them. I was more than a little curious how two volatile artists like Freire and Chailly would fare in these muscular, Germanic warhorses. Iím glad to report some positive results.

I think my overriding observation has been the thoroughly superb playing of the Leipzig orchestra. Itís quite a while since I heard them on disc, but my collection boasts a number of memorable performances, particularly a Mendelssohn 3 and 4 with Masur and the famous Jessye Norman Strauss ĎFour Last Songsí where, as here, the beauties of the orchestral detail almost threaten to overshadow the soloistís contribution.

The opening tutti of the D minor is simply thrilling, the swift tempo and cast-iron rhythms recalling Szell in his heyday. I donít think Iíve ever heard the string trills played with such accuracy yet with no trace of the mechanical. Woodwind are also beautifully balanced, with a luminous transparency that sounds almost Ďperiodí. As I say, the tempo is swift, but Freire still manages to make his entry sound natural and unhurried, something the young Stephen Hough doesnít quite manage on his similarly paced and otherwise admirable Virgin version with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO. Conductor and soloist engage in some wonderful dialogue, knowing when to build the dramatic tension and release those wonderful climactic moments. The coda is a good example, the welter of orchestral and piano sonority building inexorably but with no vulgarity or harshness. This is great artistry caught Ďon the wingí.

In many ways the B flat Concerto is just as successful, if not quite as naggingly memorable. Chailly and Freire stress the lyrical, vocal qualities in the work just as much as my previous benchmarks, Brendel and Abbado on Philips. Tempos again are flowing, something that suits the slow movement particularly well. How often the cello solo gets bogged down with slow speed and muddy textures Ė not here, Chailly making sure that any hint of sentimentality is kept firmly at bay. Maybe itís the two Latin temperaments working here, but the urgency and clarity of the playing is infectious. The finale of the B flat has lightly sprung rhythms that recall Mendelssohn without losing any weight or passion. Freireís superb pianism can hardly be faulted; Iím not sure heís ever Ďcaught oní over here, but itís easy to hear why his friend Martha Argerich rates him so highly, with effortless virtuosity put entirely at the service of the music.

The sound quality is excellent, with the only hint that this is Ďliveí being the odd shuffle and stamp from the podium - Iíve heard noisier from studio conditions - and the merest rustle from the audience during hushed passages and movement breaks. Yes, competition in the two-disc formats is severe, but nothing much to beat this set from the modern digital era. Of the ones Iíve heard, Haitink/Ashkenazy on Decca are as musical as youíd expect but a touch stodgy and severe for my liking. The Hough/Davis twofer makes an outstanding bargain on Virgin and there is the budget Buchbinder/Harnoncourt on Warner Apex, beautifully played and recorded but almost five minutes longer in each concerto and the very antithesis of the Freire/Chailly approach. Having lived with this new mid-price Decca for a few weeks now, I know for sure who I would choose.

Tony Haywood


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