Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
PERFORMER: Krystian Zimerman (piano); Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 477 5413
Zimerman claims to have listened to 80 recordings of the Brahms D minor Concerto in a search for ‘the psychological perception’ of the right tempos for it – which is either dedication way beyond the call of duty, or a reminder that we might not stand urgently in need of an 81st. This late in the day we hardly expect new interpretative revelations, and so it proves: this is simply a very impressive account in the traditional grand manner, one which I’d cheerfully rank among the best half-dozen or so versions currently available. Zimerman also confesses that his 20-year-old recording with Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic was ‘far from ideal’ and on an unsuitable instrument; in this new DG issue he clearly feels much nearer perfection. Certainly he creates a magisterial sound and an unusual range of colour and timbre that matches the grandeur of Brahms’s conception. Simon Rattle is not generally thought of as a Brahmsian, but his spacious yet urgent reading conjures great sonic splendour from the BPO players, aided by the near-perfect acoustics of the Berlin Scoring Stage.

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A first-rate interpretation, therefore, and highly recommendable. But Zimerman enters a very crowded field, where Arrau, Barenboim, Brendel, Gilels, Hough, Kovacevich, Pollini, Serkin have all achieved great things, before we even think of time-travelling back to the immortal readings of Backhaus, Curzon, Rubinstein or Solomon. Indeed Solomon’s mono recording on Testament may be the finest of all, despite its elderly sound. Of (fairly) contemporary competitors I think Kovacevich’s EMI recording still stands highest for its deep humanity and lyric ardour: though the sheer resplendent sound of Zimerman’s new version might sway the issue with some buyers. Calum MacDonald