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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15 (1854-9) [49:02]
Four Ballades, op. 10 (1854) [22:57]
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 2018, Sage Gateshead Concert Hall (concerto), 2019, Kammermusiksaal DLF, Cologne
ONDINE ODE1330-2 [72:14]

I always admired the opening theme of Brahms’ Piano Concerto 1 as gritty rhetoric, but then came across the statement of Joseph Joachim, who conducted its premiere, that it reflects Brahms’ state of mind on discovering Schumann had tried to drown himself in the Rhine.  Lars Vogt’s opening indeed conveys distress on an epic scale, a world imploding. Be careful how you set your volume control: Vogt’s introduction, with no lead-in time, is a true fortissimo headed by the timpani, violas and double-basses, against which the violins and cellos spikily etch the opening theme, both enthralling and disturbing. But there’s relief in the second theme, introduced espressivo by the first violins (tr. 1, 1:03), an empathising, compassionate response, melting but then almost overcome in its own sorrow as the first violins are muted (1:27). The impression Vogt (here the conductor) conveys for me is a deeply felt response taking place in a hideaway, reinforced in that the return of the ff opening takes us back into the mainstream. But next there’s a more combative response to that opening in the impassioned violins’ gambit in running quavers (3:12) and then energetic, almost jolly, leaping figure repeated and supported by flutes, oboes and clarinets (3:26), Brahms in heroic vein, before this too dissipates and thereby seems transitory. Now the piano enters (3:47) with the third theme, whose mood is that of the second theme, sad, consolatory, but has more staying power. This is because it is, and Vogt the pianist shows it to be, of a mellifluous continuity in its lyricism. There’s also something of a lullaby character. Even so, it’s soon angrily caught up in the mood of the work’s opening. But the second theme also returns and Vogt brings a heart-wrenching pathos to it. Then comes a fourth theme, introduced by the piano alone (6:28), one of gratitude and the first with an aura of happiness. As it progresses it takes up and develops, with from Vogt an element of incandescence, the jolly leaping figure from the introduction, yet still remaining within a context of reflection. This may be said equally of the following tutti and then the soft horn solos, marcato ma dolce, of the jolly figure and sensitively executed here. The oboe then especially assists in sustaining this mood but, after a rhapsodic phase, the piano bursts in ff in double octaves to usher in once more the harsh reality of the introduction. You wonder, will the distress and anger never end? Again, the consolatory response, this time softly and expressively in the cellos and double-basses and then graphically mused over by Vogt. Again, a brainstorm between piano and orchestra which suddenly takes in a new dimension, a lightly articulated whimsy you presume now recalling the happiest former times with Schumann (13:10), headily continuing to a tutti parade of fanfares which turn out to introduce the recapitulation of the angst, even more vehement and bitter than before. Yet now there’s a different respite: a mellower version of the third theme in flute, oboe and bassoon and then violins (15:23), soon taken up by the piano. The return of the fourth theme now seems a natural progression, while I appreciate meanwhile some luminous woodwind playing by the Royal Northern Sinfonia. But the coda (21:03), with the basic tempo of the movement poco più animato, allows no remission from the earlier vituperative anger.

I’ve tried to convey the effect of the challenge that Vogt has taken on as player-conductor in this work. I think he’s the first to record it in both roles. In its premiere, Brahms just played the piano. I compared this with the 2013 recording with Stephen Hough as soloist and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg conducted by Mark Wigglesworth (Hyperion CDA 67961).  Wigglesworth’s opening is thunderous but projected neatly without the feel of dishevelment that Vogt brings, of the coming of chaos. Wigglesworth’s second theme is sad, but for me without Vogt’s more personal quality of empathy. Wigglesworth’s violins’ running quavers are trimly delivered, but less passionate than Vogt’s and the latter’s leaping figure has more swing. Hough’s opening piano theme is sorrowful, but he takes everything in his stride with fluency. Vogt brings a sense of mollifying, coming to terms with the situation, yet with more distress and boiling up towards the return of the opening theme. Hough conveys the fourth theme with stoicism, dignity in sorrow, to which the leaping theme in its second part appears almost incidental. Vogt brings to this whole a majestic sense of resolution in which the leaping theme is key. A clear test of the interaction of piano and orchestra comes when the piano has a commentary over the strings’ soft repeat of the fourth theme (8:08 in Vogt) and then there’s soon a crescendo. For me with Vogt the texture is clearer and the progression more urgent than with Hough/Wigglesworth. The latter’s horn solos are nicely marcato but not as dolce as Vogt’s. Changeability of mood is, however, a clear feature from Hough/Wigglesworth, Hough’s solo recall of the second theme having a magical quality, as if of a spiritual probing. In this Vogt (12:14) is less creamy, yet clear-sighted with regard to pathos and pain - and changeability is starker from Vogt, who finds more delicacy in the leggiero passage (13:10) and more bristling venom in the return of the first theme by piano and orchestra where Hough is rather deliberate. Hough brings solemnity and gravitas to the return of the fourth theme, but Vogt (17:01) conveys more warmth and a deep sense of inner strength. The Hough/ Wigglesworth coda has an electric fire and weight, but Vogt’s has more ragged edge which encapsulates the turmoil of the experience of the whole movement.

Beneath the muted violins and violas’ chorale-like theme at the opening of the Adagio slow movement Brahms wrote in the autograph manuscript, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, so this amply measured yet flowing procession of beneficence that Vogt the conductor adopts with support from the bassoons and later horns, flute and clarinets is the Benedictus. The piano protagonist is supported by a community of worshippers. Vogt’s piano solo has a more marked climax and thus glimpse of ecstasy and fulfilment. This progression is even more marked in the piano’s second entry, while its third entry and brief second solo (tr. 2, 3:36) is, in contrast, soft, delicate and trance-like in response to the low-lying strings mystical aura. But its fourth entry and third, also brief, solo expands this, growing louder and troubled in the movement’s second theme, from Vogt angular with big leaps (4:39), not one for singing until 20th century music. The clarinets try to smooth things over in a conciliatory third theme (5:29), but the full woodwind and strings’ band turns this into a yell of triumph with which the piano can momentarily come to terms. The resolution is the return of the opening theme more beamingly in the woodwind and cellos, to which the strings’ soft response is like a benediction. But the piano’s next solo moves from somewhat nostalgic reflection, in a molto crescendo (8:47), in which Vogt takes no prisoners, to grandiloquence, a mood then taken up full-throated by the wind. This is a brief, full sighting of the radiance that’s usually latent and then we return to the very soft prayerful veneration of the strings in low register and the delicate melodic flow of the piano. This isn’t serenity, but entreaty from a perspective of faith and therefore hope which crystallizes in a piano cadenza. For coda a pared-down orchestra plays the opening theme very softly, joined by the timpani only played in the closing two bars of this movement, setting the seal, as if to its pilgrims’ act of homage.

How do you like your pilgrims? Wigglesworth’s are smoother in their opening procession, taking 1:28 to Vogt’s 1:38. I prefer Vogt’s entry as pianist, dovetailing with the piano diminuendo of the bassoons and second horn and thereby joining the community, where Hough floats over them, strictly more correctly as his entry is marked piano. I admire Hough’s poised, deeply considered solos, but feel these are of emotion already recollected in tranquillity rather than Vogt’s rougher-edged sense of present experience. Hough’s third entry is darker, more probing, but not as dolce as Vogt’s. The movement’s second theme from Hough has polished away much of the angularity that Vogt brings. Hough’s cadenza is similarly more stylish but less gutsy than Vogt’s. Take your pick.

The rondo finale takes us back down to earth with a bold, brusque rondo theme begun even a touch combatively by Vogt the pianist, but Vogt the conductor also throws himself wholeheartedly into the contest, which is accordingly equally enjoyed by the orchestra. It’s the latter which softly sketches a benign alternative (tr. 3, 0:54) which germinates in the piano’s introduction of a buoyant first episode theme (1:29), a kind of upbeat cousin to the saturnine rondo theme, as both themes are similar in rhythm and shape. Vogt’s expansive solo eventually gets him into the ecstatic mode he conveys so well. The piano is now ruling the roost and not to be deflected by horn and trumpet calls, yet the rondo theme return grows more devil-may-care in both piano and orchestra. The second episode theme introduced by the strings (4:05) is rich with rising figures in a mellow B flat major. The piano simplifies it into a blithe series of leaps. The third horn imitates it. The strings start a fugue on their original version. The potential rigour soon dissolves into Mendelssohn-like fairy mode, a defusing process which results in a playfulness not hitherto found in this work and exquisitely realized by the Royal Northern Sinfonia. When Vogt the pianist creates a creamy version of the second episode theme (6:13) you may twig it’s really just a carefree, quite placid transformation of the rondo theme and you will do so when the original soon follows, even jauntier than before. The piano now reintroduces the first episode theme in low register con passione. Only now comes this concerto’s first piano cadenza, marked quasi Fantasia. This makes me freshly receptive to the orchestra’s affectionate return to the first episode theme. The rondo theme’s next appearance is in a rather weird transformation, an animated version on violins in which it manages to meld with the first episode theme. Then comes a second piano cadenza before a coda in which the orchestra’s fanfares and piano’s emphatic completion of the first episode theme ensure that the work ends in optimism.

Hough/Wigglesworth present the finale as a virtuoso showpiece. Hough’s rondo theme is bullishly disciplined, Wigglesworth’s response resolute with a smidgen of grim humour. Vogt has less weight but more energy. Hough’s treatment of the first episode theme is more smoothly rounded with relaxed lyricism, but I’d forsake that for Vogt’s greater joy, bounce and burning progression. Wigglesworth brings to the second episode theme more swell but less warmth than Vogt. Wigglesworth is as adept at the fugue as Vogt, but less light. The later revealing of transformations of the rondo theme is much clearer from Vogt. Hough’s con passione return of the first episode theme has an attractive greater breadth than Vogt’s, but the latter reveals more its growingly portentous quality. Hough’s performance of the finale is one of greater bravura and brilliance, but I prefer the journey of discovery experienced with Vogt. In sum, his account is a triumphant vindication of his courage in taking on the role of piano-conductor for this work.

I shall focus on two of the Four Ballades which I find most striking in Lars Vogt’s interpretation and then compare them with recent ones by another pianist. The first is Ballade 1 after the Scottish Ballad ‘Edward’. Brahms’ themes, the first, at the outset, cold Andante questioning in right-hand octaves with a first phrase that falls away and second that insidiously rises in empty space, both command an answer. The second theme (tr. 4, 0:34) is a slightly faster response, with the relief of confession ironically in hymn-like phrasing, but also more sustained at the end as if looking back with guilt. Brahms’ setting uses the ballad’s metre, so the music can be sung to its text, whose first question is the mother’s “Why dois your brand sae drap wi bluid, Edward, Edward? And why sae [sad] gang ye o?” You need access to the text to appreciate the setting: scroll down to page 108. If you need a modern English translation, I can’t give you a link because the text is copyright and can’t be copied without permission, but you can view it by googling LiederNet, search by the title ‘Edward’ and then click the ENG box. It’s worth doing because Brahms’ music encapsulates the text. The significant murder comes at the end of the third of the poem’s seven stanzas and Brahms places it in his ballade’s Allegro middle section (1:42). The second theme continues through this in the left hand, while the right plays a three quaver then dotted minim motif alluding to the ‘fate motif’ which begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this itself here quite similar in pitch and line to the first theme, so in linking first and second themes Brahms prefigures the poem’s devastating punch line. The climax of this section, ff pesante, is the fulfilment of the poem’s action, both the murder and the closing curse, at which point Vogt says in this CD’s booklet notes, “I always feel like I’m just covered with blood.” So, in the coda when theme 1 returns there’s no theme 2 response because Edward’s curse has already answered his mother’s final question. But the left hand beneath the right’s theme 1 is new: a speckling of quasi-pizzicato paired quavers then rests. Vogt thinks this is “like dripping blood.” I find that attractive, but then why do both hands end in the bass register? There’s a secretive, subterranean quality, even for me in Vogt’s playing here. Is this an allusion to the poem’s stanzas 4-6, with Edward now doomed for ever to wander aimlessly alone away from home and kin, so might he just want the earth to swallow him up?

What Vogt gets across with a magic touch is there’s something icy and haunting about the atmosphere before we’re immersed in the tale, the tense challenge of theme 1 and release through the action of theme 2. The music plays cat and mouse as does the poem. For comparison, I use Vladimir Feltsman recorded in 2016 (Nimbus Alliance NI 6365). The ends of Feltsman’s opening question’s phrases, “Edward, Edward”, like nailing of responsibility, are more sombre but there isn’t the electric tension that Vogt supplies from the start. Feltsman’s second theme makes a weightier, more formal response, but it doesn’t have the straightforwardness of Vogt: you feel Feltsman is holding something back. His middle section is a sonorous blaze of activity, yet without Vogt’s adrenalin: Feltsman’s climax is a cold, dutiful act. His coda clarifies a machine-like existence in which the evocation of blood or escapism would be outrageously fanciful.

My other most striking ballade is No. 2 and this for Brahms’ finest lyricism in the set. His opening Andante melody is worthy of Schubert. Warm and tenderly flowing, it could be a lullaby. Generously supplied with arpeggios, Vogt adds some more not in the Henle Neue Ausgabe Sämtlicher Werke edition I’m following and omits some that are, but I can accept this is a personal thing as the mood Vogt creates seems to me perfect. And worth unpacking. Brahms begins with an introductory phrase, not really a melodic one but reaching smoothly to the heavens in two leaps of a sixth. The first melody phrase descends comfortably, a second one gently undulates and is repeated, while the third phrase in repetition serenely tops even the introduction’s ascent. Now the second strain, where the mastery comes: a troubled descent in B minor with a leaping response, revived in repetition with a key change to B major; then a phrase of ardent determination, very Schubert-like (tr. 5, 0:52), C major repeated in D major, then the same final phrase and topping repeat of the first strain which then repeats again ever higher into the stratosphere to stay on Cloud Nine. Vogt floats all this beautifully. The central Allegro section (1:30) has for its driving force a motif of four staccato quavers and a minim. This gives way finally to staccato crotchets with  appoggiaturas, the rhythm which settles for the second part of this section marked molto staccato e leggiero (2:08) which broadens out eventually to semibreve chords in the right hand and a staccato four-quaver motif in the left as a transition to the return of the motif and the opening of this central section and its other parts presented briefly and more gutsily. For me Vogt is a little too gentle in the opening of this section, yet could be wispier in the second part. After this the lullaby returns in full, it seems with more intensity, at least in Vogt’s playing. In the coda right-hand arpeggiated semibreve chords blend with a left-hand recall of the resonance of the melody, like autumn looking back at summer, low tessitura so, as in Ballade 1, there’s a subterranean journey, but this time to suggest unfathomable beauty.

Feltsman, timing Ballade No. 2 at 7:03 to Vogt’s 6:30, is more relaxed in its opening melody, gently savouring the experience playing the arpeggios as marked, not quite floating like Vogt but with the Schubertian ardour a little more earnest. I prefer Feltsman’s treatment of the central section. He gives it more weight, a grim sense of purpose and contrasts its parts better. The second part is jocular, not really light but works well enough firmly phrased. Feltsman doesn’t play the arpeggios in the first phrase of the return of the first section, probably because they aren’t marked the first time. In the coda he brings sharper definition to the reminiscence of the opening melody deep in the left hand.

Michael Greenhalgh

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