Paul Lewis performs Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Ballades

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COMPOSERS: Johannes Brahms
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Ballades, Op. 10
PERFORMER: Paul Lewis (piano); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
CATALOGUE NO: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902191

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Soloist and orchestra dialogue as equals in Brahms’s defiantly symphonic First Piano Concerto, and so for a performance to succeed they need to operate on the same musical wavelength. Fortunately, Paul Lewis and Daniel Harding share a similar conception, striving for an ideal balance between the work’s Romantic and Classical aspects. In the first movement, they both encapsulate the contrasting moods of defiance and lyricism without indulging in unwarranted touches of rubato or having to negotiate awkward gear changes. Indeed, even in the opening tutti, Harding pulls out all the stops with a thunderously powerful account of the main thematic material, yet ensures that tension does not sag in the ensuing more wistful writing. Likewise, Lewis brings all the requisite power to the ‘sturm und drang’ octaves and trills, but maintains flow and a wonderful feeling for inner voicing in the chorale theme.

The Adagio, all too often in other performances, can sound ponderous, particularly if the adopted tempo is too slow. Harding avoids this trap by bathing the flow of constant crotchets in a subtly nuanced texture that achieves a delicate balance between strings and wind. Lewis follows suit with playing that is imbued with great warmth, nobility and inner strength. In the Finale, Lewis and Harding resume the struggle between the forces of darkness and light with playing of great rhythmic intensity. Particularly impressive is the moment in the cadenza where Lewis steers us through the transition from the dark recesses of the minor key to the first hints of triumphal resolution in the major. A similar awareness of the underlying emotional tensions between major and minor key material makes Lewis’s performances of the Four Ballades just as memorable.

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Erik Levi