Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [46:48]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel for solo piano, Op. 24 (1861) [25:10]
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [47:26]
16 Waltzes for solo piano, Op. 39 (1864, arr. solo piano 1867) [18:12]
Leon Fleisher (piano)
Cleveland Symphony Orchestra/Georg Szell
rec. 21-22 February 1958 (Op. 15), 19-20 October 1962 (Op. 83) Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA; 31 May, 1, 14 June, 5 July, 9, 17 August 1956, Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City, USA (Op.24); August 9th-17th 1956,
Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City, USA (Op. 39). ADD

Johannes BRAHMS
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [51:43]
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [51:44]
7 Fantasias for solo piano, Op. 116 (1892) [21:44]
Emil Gilels (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
rec. June 1972, Jesus Christ Church, Dahlem, Berlin, Germany (Op. 15, 83); September 1975, Concert Hall, Turku, Finland (Op. 116). ADD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 447 446-2 [51:43 + 73:37]

There are a large number of recordings of the Brahms piano concertos. It can be quite bewildering as well as time-consuming choosing the finest available versions. For my recommendation I have settled on established accounts from two eminent pianists: the American Leon Fleisher on Sony and Ukrainian-born Emil Gilels on Deutsche Grammophon.

Fleisher was born in 1928 in San Francisco and was in his early to mid-thirties when he made these recordings. Released on the CBS Epic label (now Sony) they were made four years apart at Cleveland’s Severance Hall: the First in 1958 and the Second in 1962. Szell was Hungarian by birth and raised in Austria. He was one of a group of Hungarian-born conductors who made such an impact on American musical life including Dorati, Reiner and Ormandy. From his appointment as music director in 1946 Szell moulded the Cleveland players into one of America’s finest orchestras. Fleisher first performed with Szell in 1946 at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms’ First Concerto. In the booklet notes Fleisher explains that he recorded the First Concerto on two different pianos, “my piano CD199 [Note: Steinway], having been delayed en route from New York by a snowstorm, arrived only in time to be used for the second and third movements.” The Fleisher disc also includes impressive solo piano performances of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 and the set of 16 Waltzes, Op. 39. They were both recorded in 1956 with mono sound at the Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City.

Emil Gilels, born in 1916 at Odessa in the Ukraine, was aged fifty-five when he recorded the Brahms Piano Concertos in 1972 at the Jesus Christ Church in Berlin Dahlem - a renowned recording venue which is still in high demand today. Jochum was steeped in the Austro-German tradition and was thought of as a specialist of Bruckner and Brahms. Bavarian-born, he was the first chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra holding that post for 11 years from 1949. In the Deutsche Grammophon booklet the recording engineer Klaus Scheibe wrote that Gilels knew the Second Concerto extremely well and had already recorded it prior to these 1972 sessions. However, he had, “hardly ever played the First Concerto and needed some persuasion to undertake it.” One might have expected Karajan, so prolific in the recording studio, to have taken the baton for these recordings not Jochum. Interestingly Karajan recorded the Second Concerto a number of times but never made ventured the First Concerto. In an interview that Jochum gave not long before his death in 1987 he singled out these Brahms recordings with Gilels for particular praise. My set on Deutsche Grammophon 447 446-2 also includes Gilels’s sensitive performances of the Brahms 7 Fantasias for solo piano, Op. 116. These he recorded in 1975 at the Turku Concert Hall in Finland.

Brahms started writing the three movement First Concerto in 1854 around the time of the suicide attempt by his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. It was Brahms’s first large-scale work for orchestra and had its origins in the first movement of a Sonata in D minor for Two pianos. It would be another seventeen years before Brahms was to complete his First Symphony. The D minor Concerto was introduced in January 1859 at Hanover with Brahms as soloist and Joseph Joachim conducting.

Szell and the Clevelanders on Sony Masterworks Heritage provide a thrilling orchestral introduction to commence the massive and dramatic first movement Maestoso. It just throbs with ferocity. One immediately notices how Fleisher strikes the keys with fluidity and often tenderness. The glorious lyrical theme with Fleisher playing alone is spine-tingling, delicate and intimate. Occurring just prior to the recapitulation the first theme is as angry as a storm at sea with the second dance-like and soft in mood. There is rock-solid playing throughout from both soloist and orchestra. Surprisingly the virtuosic coda felt squally rather than stormy. On DG the Maestoso of Jochum’s orchestral opening sounds suitably angry but not quite as fierce as Szell. Jochum noticeably slows the pace before allowing it to erupt with great drama. Jochum’s tempi fluctuate markedly throughout and he takes three minutes longer than Szell. Gilels’ finger-work feels a touch deliberate and not quite as poetic as that of Fleisher. In the coda Gilels and Jochum supply impressive drama. In the Adagio Fleisher provides highly expressive playing of a meditative almost reverential quality. Everything is shaped with absolute care. Gilels offers a searching performance of the Adagio that feels slower than Fleisher although has virtually the same timing. Gilels is suitably contemplative although I wasn’t entirely happy with his articulation which at times felt rather uneven. The final movement - a Rondo - Allegro non troppo - sees Fleisher playing the syncopated rhythms swiftly with great purpose. He robustly brings out the nervous anxiety of the writing. With an interpretation of extremely high quality Gilels elects to take the music at a noticeably slower pace with marginally less vigour.

It was more than twenty-two years later when Brahms completed his Second Concerto. Much of the writing was undertaken at his Austrian holiday home in the Alpine resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee on the shore of Lake Wörth. The score was completed in January 1881 and premièred in November that year in Budapest under the baton of Alexander Erkel with Brahms as soloist. Cast in four movements the Second Concerto is very different from the First Concerto being more symphonic in nature and just as challenging for performers.

On Sony the terse and rather angry piano part of the opening movement Allegro non troppo is interpreted briskly and responsively by Fleisher. After the recapitulation Fleisher’s figuration is fluid, just overflowing with colour. I was struck by the strong sense of tension generated by Szell and the Clevelanders and the elevated degree of drama in the coda. In the DG account with the Berlin Phil the short weeping horn solo that opens the score is beautifully in tune. Using the wisdom of many years’ experience Gilels conveys considerable tone colour even if his playing lacks Fleisher’s spontaneity. Seemingly effortless technical command by Fleisher in the Scherzo displays impressive dynamics. There’s also a masterly rubato that feels so instinctive. This is serious, forceful and stormy playing. I found the conclusion beautifully realised with a wealth of drama. Gilels’s reading of the challenging Scherzo feels urgent and hard driven yet secure. Jochum ensures that the orchestral section at the conclusion conveys breathtaking excitement. In the Andante the song-like cello solo played by Jules Eskin - the Cleveland principal - pulses with intense sadness. I loved Fleisher’s introspection. His playing is imbued with a sense of longing that contrasts beautifully with the disconcertion and windswept conversation of the writing. In Jochum’s account the prominent cello part played by Ottomar Borwitzky initially sounded rather pallid. The playing is brisker than that of Eskin before he slows down to display a desirable yearning quality. Gilels is achingly tender - quite beguiling with an engrossing central section of tension and anger. In Fleisher’s hands the final Allegretto grazioso is delightfully playful. It’s almost impudent with the Cleveland orchestra revelling in such joyful writing. Fleisher is an assured player and makes short work of the broad rhythmic contrasts and the splendid succession of memorable themes. At first Fleisher’s coda is vivacious and carefree before speeding up and building to a satisfying conclusion. Gilels’s buoyant playing feels so fresh and fluid providing impressive lyricism and a wide palette of colour. Gilels’s coda is good-humoured and imparts a gratifying ending to this marvellous score. I always feel that Brahms was leading me to expect a conclusion of angst-ridden drama instead of one that is so good natured.

Some listeners have not been entirely happy with the sound quality of Fleisher’s accounts especially in the Second Concerto. I am not of that persuasion and have no major reservations over the sound in either of the concertos. Although not perfect in terms of clarity and balance I found Fleisher’s playing to be well recorded. The mono sound of Fleisher’s solo piano scores from 1956 at the Columbia Studio in New York City is not quite as clear as that accorded to his Concertos although in no way did I feel that this detracted from my listening pleasure. Gilels’s sound quality in the concertos is well balanced and reasonably clear without being exceptional. The 7 Fantasias were successfully recorded. I found this playing extremely impressive over the two Brahms Concertos however my principal recommendation must go to Leon Fleisher whose majestic performances have greater drama and poetic slow movements. He is pacier in the faster movements with a wider range of dynamic and additional power.

Michael Cookson

My principal recommendation must go to Fleisher whose majestic performances have greater drama and poetry.

Editor's note
It should be noted that these are not new re-issues - the review has been written so that Musicweb International has commentary on two of the legendary recordings of these concertos.