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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [48.13]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [50.54]
Sunwook Kim (piano)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. March/April 2016, Hallé/St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLD7546 [48.13 + 50.54]

With this new release Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé, has turned to Brahms with the two piano concertos in studio recordings from 2016. There is an abundance of recordings of these Brahms works in the catalogue which seem to have been a rite of passage for many concert pianists but there is always room for another set especially when played as well as in these performances by the Korean, Sunwook Kim.

Brahms started writing his three-movement First Piano Concerto in 1854 around the time of the suicide attempt by his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. It was Brahms’ 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 Piano Concerto was introduced in January 1859 at Hanover under Joseph Joachim with Brahms as soloist.

Elder and the Hallé provide a dramatic orchestral introduction to commence the massive and dramatic first movement, Maestoso. It just pulsates with drama. One immediately notices how decisively Kim strikes the keys and everything is shaped with clarity and immediacy. The glorious lyrical theme with Kim’s playing alone is near spine-tingling, so introspective. Striking is the secure performance throughout from both soloist and orchestra whilst maintaining a high level of intensity.

In the Adagio Kim provides engaging playing of near reverential quality if at times the tempo borders on the unpalatably languid. The final movement Rondo - Allegro non troppo sees Kim playing the syncopated rhythms robustly with urgency, astutely bringing out the nervy character of the writing. Playing with distinct confidence and high levels of concentration, overall Kim creates a captivating sense of awe.

After the First Piano Concerto it was more than twenty-two years before Brahms completed his Second Piano 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 premičred in November that year in Budapest under Alexander Erkel with Brahms once again as soloist. Cast in four movements the Second Piano Concerto is very different from the First being more symphonic in nature with the soloist more integral to the orchestra yet the work is just as challenging for performers.

From his first note to the last Kim is able to convey considerable tone colour yet still communicate an authentic sense of spontaneity. Opening the score the short weeping horn solo, nicely in tune, seems a touch tentative. Terse and rather angry, the piano part of the substantial opening movement Allegro non troppo is interpreted urgently by Kim in a performance of compelling concentration. Striking is the sensation of angst and anxiety generated by Elder and the Hallé with an elevated degree of drama in the Coda. With seemingly effortless technical command Kim provides impressive dynamics in the anxiety laden writing of the stormy Scherzo. There’s also an impressive rubato that feels completely instinctive. Elder ensures that the orchestral section at the conclusion conveys the necessary breathtaking excitement.

In the Andante the song-like cello solo, imbued with melancholy, is gloriously played by the principal although slightly recessed in the recording balance. Kim’s sense of introspection is marked with poetic playing imbued with a keen sense of yearning which contrasts beautifully with the unsettling and windswept nature of the writing. In Kim’s hands the Finale: Allegretto grazioso is vibrant and uplifting while the Hallé too revel in such joyful writing. Firmly assured, Kim takes in his stride the broad rhythmic contrasts and the splendid succession of memorable themes. Throughout Kim’s interpretation feels remarkably invigorating providing impressive lyricism and a wide palette of colour.

Recorded under studio conditions at Hallé/St. Peter’s, Ancoats the dynamic range of the release is wider than my ideal resulting in considerable volume adjustment. Nevertheless the clarity is good and the balance between piano and orchestra is generally satisfying too.

These are high quality performances from Sunwook Kim and the Hallé which I will play often, however the competition in the record catalogue is fierce. My principal recommendation remains the evergreen account from eminent American pianist Leon Fleisher with the Cleveland Orchestra under Georg Szell. Recorded four years apart in 1958 (No. 1) and 1962 (No. 2) Fleisher was in his early- to mid-thirties when he made these stereo recordings whose majestic performances have great drama and poetic slow movements. Fleisher is well paced in the faster movements with a wide range of dynamic and significant power. I have no major reservations over the sound in either of these recordings produced at Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio although they are not perfect in terms of clarity and balance. Commendable too is Maurizio Pollini accompanied by the world class Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann on Deutsche Grammophon. The Italian soloist’s masterful Brahms performances are full of intensity and character. Recorded live in 2011 and 2013 in the marvellous acoustic of the Semperoper, Dresden the sound engineers excel, providing a reasonably close recording with excellent detail and balance.

Released on the Hallé’s own label the two piano concertos are accommodated on a pair of discs which has ample space left to have accommodated other Brahms works. How splendid to have included the Alto Rhapsody, a favourite work, and either the Schicksalslied, Gesang der Parzen or Nänie, all opportunities to hear the outstanding Hallé choir sing Brahms.
Michael Cookson



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