Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1; Two Songs Op. 91

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Concerto No.1; Two Songs Op. 91
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich (piano), Ann Murray (mezzo soprano), Nobuko Imai (viola); LPO/Wolfgang Sawallisch
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 7 54578-2
‘Just think what I dreamed last night’, Brahms told Clara Schumann. ‘I had used my symphony which came to grief for a piano concerto.’ The dream came true: what had begun life as a sonata for two pianos, and then been sketched out as the start of a symphony, became a grandly imposing concerto opening movement.

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It is much to Sawallisch’s credit that this first movement – one of the most thrilling in all Brahms – conveys solemnity without ever sacrificing drama and tension. Stephen Kovacevich is on top form, too: just listen to the exhilarating way he launches (aided by Wimbledon-style grunts) into the powerful double octaves at the start of the central section. The serene slow movement – a requiem for Schumann – is quite beautifully handled, and there’s no shortage of gipsy exuberance in the finale.

The LPO play superbly throughout, and my only reservation – a small one – concerns the piano’s very first entry. Brahms composes a ‘dissolve’, in which the soloist takes over the cellos’ figuration. Kovacevich’s left-hand rubato here means that the transition is not quite as seamless as it should be.

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The serene late songs with viola, touchingly sung by Ann Murray, provide an extra incentive to acquire this outstanding release. Misha Donat