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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854-58) [49:19]
Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854) [22:40]
Paul Lewis (piano)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. May 2014, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm (Concerto); January 2016, Teldex Studio, Berlin (Ballades)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902191 [72:10]

Brahms’s mighty Piano Concerto No. 1 has received many stellar performances preserved on disc, so any newcomer would have to be really special to merit a new recording. I fear this one will appeal primarily to fans of pianist Paul Lewis or maybe to those coming to the work for the first time. It is certainly performed and recorded very well. However, it lacks the key ingredient of youthful fire that is essential to this piece. Brahms was not middle-aged when he composed the concerto. It was his first orchestral work, one that gave him no little trouble and required some four years for it to achieve its final shape. It is a mammoth concerto the likes of which had not existed before. Even Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto pales next to this.

What is lacking in this new account is dynamism and thrust, much of which comes from the orchestral part. For me, there was one conductor above all who did justice to this music: George Szell. He made several recordings, three of which I have owned in various formats. My first exposure was to the youthful Leon Fleisher in his dynamic account with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony). I also appreciated the later versions with Rudolf Serkin, again with the Cleveland (Sony), and Clifford Curzon with the LSO (Decca), but still come back most often to Fleisher who burned his way through the work. No one has bettered that, though it is beginning to sound its age as a recording. I also liked Stephen Kovacevich’s less volatile performance with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the London Philharmonic (EMI), but now find it a bit tame—however, the Two Songs for Alto with Viola and Piano with Ann Murray, Nobuko Imai, and Kovacevich on the same disc are really special. There is one digital recording that runs Fleisher a close second and that is Nelson Freire’s with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly (Decca). It naturally has much better sound than the 1958 Fleisher/Szell account and in its way is almost as exciting.

Paul Lewis, for the most part, does a fine job in the concerto, but even he can get heavy-handed at times. Those octaves starting at 11:20 in the first movement are overly deliberate and impede the flow. Interestingly, the total timing in this movement is 23:22, some two minutes slower than Fleisher/Szell, Kovacevich/Sawallisch, and Freire/Chailly. On the other hand, the second movement is a minute faster at 13:25 and here Lewis and Harding perform the music with real simplicity at a nice, flowing tempo. It works even if others bring more profundity to it. The finale is also slower than the others and is lacking in spontaneity until the coda, when it really takes off like a rocket. Some of that verve might have helped earlier.

The four early Ballades make an appropriate filler for the concerto. Here I can find nothing to fault with Paul Lewis’s pianism. These are not throwaway performances merely to fill out the disc. Lewis has much to say about the music and delights with both warmth and clarity. He does not stint on demonstrating the polyphonic nature of these works, yet there is nothing pedantic on his approach to the notes. I would love to hear what he would do with Brahms’s late piano pieces.

I am sure there are listeners who will appreciate Lewis and Harding’s weighty way with the concerto, even if I am not that enthusiastic about it. Had I heard it in concert, I probably would have come away satisfied. It is unlikely that I will return to it on this disc, although I am certain to listen again to the Ballades. Harmonia Mundi provides a detailed note by Roman Hinke on the genesis of these pieces, as well as attractive artwork and a colour photo of Paul Lewis.

Leslie Wright

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)



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