Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [49:29]
Four Ballades, Op. 10 [22:41]
Paul Lewis (piano)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. May 2014, Stockholm Berwaldhallen (concerto), January 2016, Teldex Studio Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902191 [72:12]
Paul Lewis is much more widely recorded alone rather than as a concerto soloist. His cycle of the Beethoven concertos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was justifiably lauded (review), and this Brahms disc deserves to win similar plaudits. It’s thrillingly played, excitingly conducted and full of both power and beauty, making it the best Brahms 1 we’ve had since Zimmerman and Rattle in Berlin (review), as well as Lewis’ best disc for a while, too.
You know where you stand right from the boldly defiant opening. It crackles with energy, like hurling down the gauntlet, which is exactly what it should be! Thunderous fortissimo chords bring an ending to the first subject, but it’s lithe on its feet, too, and the end of the opening tutti has a touch of the dance to its rhythm. The piano's first entry is then all soothing legato, as if trying to calm everything down, but it’s quickly blown off course by the rising storm brewing in the orchestra. The chordal second theme sounds beautiful, underpinned by Lewis' subtle emphasis on the bass, answered by beautifully sweet winds and richly sonorous Swedish strings (again full of bass), which are even more beautiful second time around in the recapitulation. Everything seems to be coming to a genuine rest at the end of the exposition (emphasised by a slight, cheeky pause), making the piano's torrent of octaves that launches the exposition even more stirring, almost disturbing. The assault that ends the development and starts the recapitulation is just as mighty, as is the final straight of the coda.
I might have liked to have heard more from the violins at the beautiful opening of the Adagio. They sound withdrawn, almost veiled, as though Harding was trying to make up for how powerful they had been the first movement. However, Lewis' way the piano line is magnificent, taking it ever so gently, note-by-note, as if exploring it with delicacy and delight. Harding matches him with a beautifully shaded central section, treading the delicate balance between bliss and anguish, and the second statement of the main theme makes up for any doubts I had the first time around.
The main theme of the rondo starts playfully rather than dramatically, but then it grows and grows into something of real power and force. Lewis seems almost to be playing games with it in the little interplay before the fugato section, and he sweetens it beautifully in the passage that immediately follows. Sweeping drama follows in his minor-key treatment of the second theme, before a rollickingly good-humoured finish. The to-and-fro with the orchestra is fantastic here, and I found the ending both tremendously exciting and hugely satisfying. The recorded sound is first rate throughout, by the way, big-boned and satisfying, helping confirm this as the best Brahms 1 we’ve had for years. Dare we hope for No. 2 from this team?
Where the concerto is big and assertive, the Ballades are (naturally) more intimate and inward, helped by the closer acoustic of the Teldex studio in Berlin. Lewis taps into the troubling undercurrent that rumbles beneath the ostensibly gentle surface of No. 1, and the central section of No. 2 similarly seems to undermine the more genial demeanour of the outer sections. No. 3 alternates between spidery suggestions and a beautifully detached Scherzo, played with enigmatic delicacy, while No. 4 is the finest of all, a gently flowing song-without-words, full of wistful beauty and played with a beautiful ear for legato.