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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [52:21]
Intermezzi, Op. 117 [18:25]
Dina Ugorskaja (piano)
Brandenburger Symphoniker/Peter Gülke
rec. 2018
MDG 9012118-6 SACD [70:46]

This is a perfectly good, capably performed reading of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. The trouble is that it isn’t much more than that.

That’s not necessarily to damn it with faint praise, because much of what’s on offer is very good indeed. The slow movement is particularly good, beautifully paced, unfolding from within itself in an unhurried, gentle manner which conductor Peter Gülke shapes with a good deal of knowledge and sensitivity. There is a smooth, dreamy feel to it which is very fitting, and the orchestral winds sound great, particularly the clarinets in the main counter-theme of the central section.

Elsewhere, however, the performance rather lacks drama. That’s partly because of tempi, which are rather leisurely throughout. The storming chords of the opening, which should burst out of your speakers with a crackle of urgency, sound rather stately here, and are a long way from sounding like the Young Turk that Brahms was at the time of writing. The finale isn’t especially slow, but there’s still something of a plodding feel, and the work’s final pages are perfectly serviceable but not particularly exciting.

Nor is it purely an orchestral issue. The playing of Dina Ugorskaja is perfectly accomplished, but never set me alight. Her playing of the first movement’s second subject, for example, phrases the chordal theme effectively, but there was little to make me sit up and take notice, and the same movement’s development lacked much drama. That torrent of octaves that begins it sounds rather polite, and the pile-driving chords that end it sound a little formulaic.

The recorded balance is natural enough, but that means that the piano fits into the orchestral texture without really standing out. Some people will like that, but I longed for the spotlit sense of celebrity that you get with the likes of Krystian Zimmerman or Paul Lewis. Here, Ugorskaja comes across as one of the band, though, as I say, not all will see that as a problem

That acoustic does help the solo Intermezzi, however, which, for my money, are more consistently successful. The first is a beauty; restful, reflective and atmospheric. The second, allegedly an evocation of Schumann, is sweeping and dramatic, and the third moves from a prowling, moody introduction, through a melodramatic central section, all done with great style and an impressive understanding of the music’s dynamics.

All very good, then, but it would be unrealistic to deny that this disc stands or falls by the concerto; a performance that will do perfectly well. But why should you make do with that when you have gems on offer from the likes of Freire/Chailly, Zinman/Rattle or, most recently, Lewis/Harding?

Simon Thompson

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