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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15 (1858) [50:05]
Tragic Overture, Op 81 (1880) [15:25]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Eliza ou Le Voyage aux Glaciers du Mont Saint-Bernard: Overture (1794) [8:37]
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Ivor Bolton
rec. June 2020, Landgasthof Riehen, Switzerland
Reviewed as a digital download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com (available in 16- or 24-bit).
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902602 [74:07]

Like London buses, you wait around for ages for a recording of Brahms first piano concerto on a Blüthner piano and then two come along together. Hot on the heels of Andras Schiff’s much fêted recording on ECM: Recommended – review – comes this alternative version by Melnikov on what appears to be a near identical piano. Schiff’s account is conductorless and features a period band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where Melnikov features a more traditional orchestra, albeit one playing in a historically-informed manner under the direction of Ivor Bolton. Comparing the two versions is almost inevitable and one of the nice things about comparing recordings on the same piano is that it stops being about pianos and is instead about pianists. So this review is as much a review of the Schiff as the Melnikov, though I hope I give proper attention to the marginally newer recording.

Schiff’s recording comes on two discs coupled with the second concerto where Melnikov’s is on one CD with two substantial bonuses as coupling. For all that Bolton’s account of the Tragic Overture threw up unanticipated echoes of Mendelssohn, I did find this performance seriously under-powered. Next to Herbert Blomstedt’s recent account, one of the best I have heard from any era - Recommended: review - Recommended: review - the shortcomings of this new version are revealed in a rather unflattering light. The other coupling, an obscure overture to an obscure Cherubini opera, whilst pleasant enough, did little to convince me that its neglect was unjust. Generous couplings, then, but ones that add little to the attraction of the disc.

This is a fine performance of the concerto, which is surprisingly similar to the Schiff account and not just because of the shared piano. There are, nonetheless, differences. Where Schiff finds a striking but attractive almost three in a bar skip to the 6/4 beat in the opening movement, Melnikov and Bolton opt for a more traditionally grand approach with a marginally broader speed. In the opening tutti, Schiff is tauter and his strings really dig into the clashing chords. Bolton is less high voltage but this allows him to let in more of a sense of deep melancholy.

As a consequence of these two different approaches – three in a bar style lilt versus a more conventional stately gait – Melnikov’s first entry is less striking than Schiff’s. I found Melnikov a little stiff here and, for once on this recording, the piano sound a little clunky, but as the first subject music gives way to the way more lyric second subject material, Melnikov really finds his feet. There is a real sense of dialogue between him and the orchestra, which probably reflects his considerable experience as an accompanist. He draws extremely refined sounds from his instrument to complement the touching Basel woodwind. Both Schiff and Melnikov make Brahms sound pleasingly youthful and ardent in this passage. The Swiss horn playing is suitably rich and romantic.

I do find I miss the raw power of a modern Steinway in the great eruption of octaves that starts the development in both the Schiff and Melnikov recordings. Yet later in this section, round about the 14-minute mark, both Melnikov and his Blüthner step into the limelight with wondrous scintillating figurations decorating the melody in the orchestra. It is one moment where the Russian clearly trumps Schiff.

I will skip forward to the slow movement. Here I found both Melnikov and Bolton a little disappointing. The playing is highly distinguished but something doesn’t quite catch fire. I kept thinking of Gilels and the Berlin Philharmonic under Jochum, and in almost every case the older recording had greater character where the new one felt a little anonymous. Schiff is preferable in this movement to Melnikov and Bolton but even he can’t hold a candle to Gilels’ classic account, which seems to penetrate deeper into the prayer-like soul of this movement than either of these newer rivals.

Melnikov’s finale is, by contrast, electric. The slightly dry timbre to the piano sound allows the opening melody to be articulated with real verve. Melnikov squeezes every last drop of joy from the top register in the many short linking cadenzas in this movement. Both he and Bolton are fully tuned into the wistful strain to this music as well as its razzle dazzle. The final pages from the cadenza that ends with a near quotation from Beethoven’s Ninth at the work’s conclusion are full of poignancy and nobility. This is Brahms playing of a very high order and I find Schiff a little awkward in places next to it. In this movement, at least, I find Melnikov has nothing to fear from comparison with older more established rivals.

I don’t think Schiff or Melnikov will drag me away from either of my preferred versions of the Brahms first piano concerto, Gilels with Jochum and Serkin with Szell, but both have a lot to recommend them. Schiff certainly merits the praise he has garnered but I feel that Melnikov has earned his place by his side in this battle of the period pianos. Roll on a recording of the second concerto from these same forces please!

David McDade



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