Brahms PCs 0851832
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [48:00]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [48:26]
2 Lieder, Op. 91 [11:17]
5 Lieder, Op. 105 [13:27]
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Ann Murray (mezzo), Nobuko Imai (viola: Op. 91)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. 1991-94, Abbey Road Studios, London
Presto CD
WARNER CLASSICS 0851832 [59:05 + 61:51]

This is another set of performances that Presto has rescued from the archives and made accessible on CD once again, and I’m very glad they did. I hadn’t heard Stephen Kovacevich’s Brahms before this, but this is an altogether lovely coupling which I enjoyed enormously.

In many ways, this pair of discs exemplifies all that is good in a “classic” set of the Brahms piano concertos, and that’s praise, not criticism. Kovacevich and Sawallisch give of their best and present these concertos in uncontroversial tempi and clean interpretations, which is something of a benefit when you consider much of what else is out there. More than that, there’s beauty and thought aplenty, and if you were looking for a recommendable set then you could do far worse.

Orchestra and soloist both sound great but, if anything, it’s the orchestra that takes the palm in concerto No. 1. The opening tutti sounds magisterially forbidding, sweetened somewhat by the winds in the gap where the second subject should be. Sawallisch, whose Brahms symphonies and German Requiem have proved so successful, shows himself to be every bit as much the master of the concertos, and if he throws away the edgy syncopations with which the exposition ends, then he ends the movement with a powerful thunderclap, and he makes up for it with a jumping, dancing finale. There’s a touch of the lullaby to the way he accompanies the piano’s playing of the real second subject, and his slow movement unfolds in one great, long breath.

When Kovacevich’s piano enters, it pours calming balm down onto the tempestuous scene it walks into, but is quickly caught up in the mayhem and storms as effectively as the orchestra. His way with the chordal second subject is then fantastically winning, smooth and lyrical with a touch of a hymn to it. If I have a criticism then it’s with his smoothing over of the cracks. Kovacevich doesn’t embrace the huge contrast between the first movement’s two main themes: instead he sees them as cut from the same cloth, which is perfectly legitimate, but it means you don’t get the adrenaline rush when the double octaves introduce the central development, and much of the recapitulation feels rather understated. However, he plays with introverted sensitivity in the slow movement and finally gives himself some rope in the energetic finale.

Piano Concerto No. 2 is overall a better fit for both of them. Though recorded a year later, the lyricism and warmth of Kovacevich’s approach is a real boon to this most poetic of concertos. Orchestra and soloist are very much of one voice in the first movement, and lots of details made me sit up and take notice, none more heart-melting than the gorgeous beginning of the recapitulation, when the piano trills ever-so-delicately under the returning horn theme and then embraces it like an old friend. Kovacevich is at his muscular best for the Scherzo, and the orchestra sound like cut glass in a thrilling central trio. The slow movement (which I confess I’ve never loved as much as many others whose prose turns purple when they describe it) unfolds with unhurried warmth, with a fantastically dreamy central section as the piano gently feels its way towards the return of the cello theme, and the finale has dancerly lightness that sounds as though it’s written for a different orchestra.

So calling them “standard” performances isn’t an insult: they’re very good, and they’re helped by beautiful recorded sound, vintage Abbey Road, with warmth, depth and plenty of space. It hasn’t made me reassess my favourites for these works - Zimmerman/Rattle/Berlin for No. 1, Friere/Chailly/Leipzig for No. 2 - but I’ll still be keeping this one on my shelf.

That brings me to the couplings, however, and they’re very interesting: two sets of songs with Ann Murray. They opus 91 set is a particular treat because it contains two songs for mezzo, piano and viola. The combination works so well, the warm textures of the viola offsetting the singer beautifully, creating a sound that speaks of music-making on the most intimate level between friends. The opus 105 set is just as interesting because it contains such a wide variety of emotions, the composer at the peak of his maturity. In both, Kovacevich shows himself to be a highly sensitive accompanist, responding to every nuance of text and mood, and supporting Murray’s warm mezzo voice. It helps that the CD booklet includes the full sung texts, too.

Simon Thompson