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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor op.15 (1854-58) [49:12]
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major op.83 (1881) [50:31]
John Lill (piano)
Hallé Orchestra/James Loughran
rec. 1978, Free Trade Hall, Manchester. ADD
RESONANCE CD RSB 204 [49:12 + 50:31]

Oh dear, Resonance are getting really good at Brahms cycles which are very fine in parts and unrecommendable in others Ė see my review of the Liverpool/Janowski set of the symphonies.

At the start of no.1 I thought the Hallé strings seemed remarkably few, though no fewer than those Brahmsís favourite Meiningen Orchestra. The resulting clarity and forward wind may sound more "authentic" today than people thought when it was first issued. Whatís more, I very much appreciated Loughranís lean, muscular style, forwardly-moving and classical. So many performances today drag out this movement. There is a slight slackening for the contrasting material but without steering into the doldrums. When Lill enters we can hear that the approach is his as much as the conductorís. He doesnít go in for massive sonorities or barnstorming virtuosity, but his textures are beautifully clean while his excellent legato prevents any suggestion of dryness. In its conversational qualities, in its sense of moderation, I thought this very close to Brahmsís own language.

And so, too, with the slow movement which, while grave, is allowed to flow. The finale, at a fairly moderate pace, has both purpose, character and vitality.

Now I admit that some listeners may find this unchallenging. Iím prepared to defend it by saying that performances that go all out for drama, or massiveness, or heaven-storming, or whatever, often lose out on other things along the way. As a corrective to exaggeration, I shall keep this by me.

After the flowing tempi of no.1 my first problem with the first movement of no.2 was the very slow tempo. As the horn started I thought this was going to be one of those performances that play this theme much slower than the rest of the movement, as a sort of motto-theme. But no, it is held pretty steady right through. Joyce Hattoís version raised a few eyebrows in this respect (Lill is a few seconds longer still) and both I and my colleague Jonathan Woolf felt that it worked fine when she was playing but created some problems for the orchestra. Now I must say that, with Loughran at the helm, thereís no problem about the orchestra. Again he essays a lean style with clean textures and alert rhythms, while not ignoring the more romantic parts. Lill, once again, is clean and unsensational. At first I quite liked it, but gradually I felt it wasnít adding up. Given a listless scherzo, in which the orchestra sounds unengaged and less accurate than usual, a wishy-washy slow movement and a joyless finale, I am bound to ask, why?

The point is, perhaps, that the first concerto is an early work. It impresses by its classical rigour and single-mindedness, qualities which Lill and Loughran grasp well. The second is a late work, infinitely more varied, more challenging in its climaxes, more ardent in its long romantic themes, but also bubbling with humour and joi-de-vivre in its Hungarian finale. Brahms has changed and developed, but Lill and Loughran seem unaware of it. In view of the excellent symphony cycle by Loughran, Iím reluctant to blame him too much, though. What passed as rigorous and well-balanced in no. 1 makes no. 2 sound as if it were written by Parry on an off-day. Itís certainly one way of reminding yourself of what a range of mood there is in this work, to hear it played by someone who apparently hasnít noticed, but youíd hardly want to get the record just for that.

No, no.1 would get a recommendation on its own but in tandem, no way. If the famous Gilels/Jochum performances are available - they havenít often been out of the catalogue - youíll get the op.116 pieces into the bargain. And, if you donít mind old sound, thereís a lot to be learnt from Schnabel on Naxos.

Christopher Howell



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