Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Nelson Freire (piano) Gewandhausorchester/ Riccardo Chailly
CATALOGUE NO: 475 7637
These are live performances from the Leipzig Gewandhaus where Brahms, in 1859, was soloist in one of the earliest performances of the D minor concerto and suffered the worst critical reception of his career. Times have changed, and I doubt if the Leipzig audience listened to Nelson Freire’s interpretation with anything less than rapt attention. The Brazilian Freire, whose career stretches back half a century, has been an elusive performer in recent years, discriminating about his repertoire. I didn’t have him marked out as a Brahmsian, but he plays with great authority. The technical challenges of the two concertos sound child’s play to him, and these are deeply thoughtful, predominantly lyrical readings of both works, ably abetted by Chailly’s direction of the orchestra. In Freire’s hands they are philosophical, not dramatic utterances. Paragraphs are beautifully shaped. The acoustic contrives to sound both beefy and velvety at once, yet the textures are always clear.

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In many ways they are impressive accounts, and yet throughout I felt some quality was lacking. Call it edge: somehow, especially in the First Concerto, there is no sense of danger to the music, none of the shock in the aftermath of Schumann’s suicide attempt, none of the daring and risk-taking that the composition of such a concerto represented in the 1850s. Brahms in his own fashion was a considerable musical dramatist, and these works above all should display that, as they do for example in Emil Gilels’ classic accounts with Jochum, or Barenboim’s with Barbirolli. Freire’s and Chailly’s performances deserve respect, yet they’re a mite too comfortable in their all-round competence. Calum MacDonald