Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1853-1858) [49:27]
4 Ballades, Op. 10 (1854) [22:40]
Paul Lewis (piano)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. January 2016, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm (concerto); Teldex Studio, Berlin (Ballades)
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902191 [72:07]

All credit to Harmonia Mundi for getting this one to market so quickly. It’s certainly a promising release, featuring as it does two very bright stars in the musical firmament. Paul Lewis has garnered much praise on these pages, not least for his Schubert and Beethoven. His concerts attract similar accolades. As for Daniel Harding, once an assistant to Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, he’s now conductor laureate of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I’ve only heard him in Mahler – the First Symphony – and I wasn’t a terribly impressed. Then again, Anne Ozorio thought very highly of his Vienna Tenth (review).

In a way I don’t envy today’s musicians when it comes to repertoire that’s inextricably linked to great artists of the past. The Brahms D minor concerto is no exception. Among my go-to versions are: Clifford Curzon, George Szell and the LSO (Decca); Emil Gilels, Eugen Jochum and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Deutsche Grammophon); Alfred Brendel, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Concertgebouw (Philips); and Stephen Kovacevich, Wolfgang Sawallisch and the London Philharmonic (EMI-Warner). As these are ‘oldies’ I’ve also included a fairly new recording with Mark Wigglesworth, Stephen Hough and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg (review). My comparative version of the Ballades is the Gilels one.

Fancy hearing the concerto played on an 1854 Érard and accompanied on authentic instruments? If so, you may want to try Hardy Rittner and Werner Ehrhardt on MDG; I have absolutely no problem with period performances, but in that instance it fails to deliver at just about every level. Goodness knows, this sometimes stodgy piece could do with some leavening, especially in the timp- and horn-drenched opening. No such luck with Lewis and Harding though; from the outset the sound is big, boomy and rather congested, not at all what one expects from this fine venue.

It’s not often that I take an instant dislike to a performance – well, not that often – but I did here. In particular I find Harding a very mannered and intrusive maestro, parenthesising phrases and generally playing fast and loose with dynamics. The result is a curious, almost vertiginous ’surge and retreat’ that I find intensely irritating. Lewis is much steadier; indeed, his admirable control only serves to highlight the lack of it elsewhere. The orchestral playing is untidy, the piano sounds a tad anaemic at times and the recording is uncouth at the frequency extremes.

I really wanted to like this performance, but I feel this imaginative and interesting soloist isn’t well served by his partners. Hearing Lewis on his own, in the Ballades, one is thrust into the presence of a most engaging artist. Colour and phrasing are lovely and the recording – made at the Teldex Studio, Berlin – is very decent. That said, I wouldn’t forgo the jewelled playing of Gilels in this work, although I do sympathise with those who don’t warm to his patrician style.

Listening to Hough and Wigglesworth in the concerto is frankly liberating, not least because the performance has all the space and clarity the piece so badly needs. It helps that the balances are natural, with a good stereo spread and a fair amount of depth. Also, Wigglesworth doesn’t dawdle, so the strings in particular have to be quick on the draw. However, it’s Hough’s extraordinary blend of finesse and feeling that makes this performance so special. Quiet lyricism and storming fortes are all part of his armoury, as is a fine ear for colour and nuance. And how expansive, how genuinely Romantic, this reading sounds after that of Lewis and Harding.

Factor in the band’s heroic playing and Wigglesworth’s incisive direction – the music ebbs and flows in all the right places – and you have a truly memorable modern account of this weary old warhorse. Incidentally, this is part of a 2-CD set that includes an equally compelling performance of the second concerto.

A disappointing release; greater rewards lie elsewhere.

Dan Morgan

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