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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]

I must confess that I find it difficult to know what to say about this pair of CDs. John Lill is a thoughtful, very musical pianist, who I admire very much. Indeed, a while ago I gave a most enthusiastic welcome to the reissue of his Beethoven concerto cycle (see review) - a set of performances that were recorded in the 1970s, as were these Brahms concertos. So it was with some anticipation that I approached these present discs. Unfortunately, I don’t feel they are as competitive as were his Beethoven performances.

The Second Concerto starts off badly, with a sluggish tempo adopted for the first movement. At the very start I thought that perhaps the aim was to be reflective but after two or three minutes I came to feel that the speed was just plain sluggish. The performance sounds as if it has feet of clay and though there’s some good playing to admire from Lill along the way the reading never takes wing and I find it hard to detect sufficient tension or forward movement.

Matters improve somewhat in the second movement. However, on several occasions Brahms eases back the tempo and at such moments I sense that this performance sags a little. The slow movement is one of Brahms’s most wonderful creations. There’s a long, singing introduction, in which the orchestra’s principal cellist is to the fore. Loughran and his players handle this section quite well. However, if one turns to the classic Emil Gilels reading (DG), the contribution of the Berlin Philharmonic under Jochum – and solo cellist Ottomar Borwitzky – is in a different league. Now it may be cruel to make such a comparison but, of course, when one issues a commercial recording such comparisons are inevitable. John Lill’s first entry has the right touch of fantasy and he gives a poetic account of this movement. The extended, nocturnal transition back to the opening material (6:35–9:06) is well done by all concerned. I must say that I always find the finale to this work a bit of a let-down but the performance here is perfectly satisfactory.

Turning to the First Concerto, James Loughran generally conducts the substantial introduction with a welcome degree of thrust. I say “generally” because, once again, I sensed the tension reducing when Brahms eases back from time to time. Other conductors – one thinks of Szell for Curzon (Decca) or Jochum (DG) – achieve the delicate balance between relaxation and maintenance of momentum rather more successfully. Lill plays very well and seems equally successful both in the grand rhetorical stretches and in the more reflective passages.

The performance of the second movement is dignified and warm and the finale also goes well, with a proper sense of vigour and momentum.

I suppose, ultimately, that this is a pair of decent performances that don’t really stir my soul. I readily admit to what is of course a wholly subjective reaction. Other listeners may well find much more in the readings than I did. I hope so. The recorded sound is unexceptionable and I didn’t find the piano tone, as recorded, particularly ingratiating. There was one moment in the first movement of the First Concerto (12:44-13:00) where, on repeated hearings the pitch sounded decidedly queasy. If I’m right then I presume this is a flaw on the source tape.

I’m very sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about this set but it enters a crowded and highly competitive market-place. There are several alternative versions that have a much stronger claim on collectors’ attentions. My own shortlist would include Curzon/Szell (Decca) in the First Concerto; the eloquent historical performances of both concertos by Solomon (Testament); and, above all, the 1972 Gilels/Jochum set (DG), still unsurpassed after all these years. 

John Quinn

see also Review by Christopher Howell


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