Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale
PERFORMER: Nikolai Koppel (piano); Danish National RSO/Thomas Dausgaard
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56942 2
The young Danish pianist Nikolai Koppel made his EMI debut a couple of years ago with a solo recital including Brahms’s Four Ballades, Op. 10. The brooding first piece in that set, inspired by a grim Scottish tale of parricide, provides a good training-ground for anyone undertaking Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, in the same key of D minor. Koppel certainly takes a solemn view of the Concerto, with tempi that are often on the slow side. He is at his best in the opening movement, which has admirable weight and drama (though the chorale-like second subject is surely too ponderous), and is considerably helped throughout by the sympathetic conducting of Thomas Dausgaard. In the slow movement, however, the lingering tempo of Koppel’s first entrance bears no relation to that of the long orchestral introduction that has preceded it, and from that point onwards – and despite some fine expressive playing – the music is constantly in danger of sounding more laboured than profound. Nor does the finale have quite the sweep and energy it needs.

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Brahms’s St Anthony Variations make a generous filler, but all in all it is difficult to feel that this newcomer will make much headway against the formidable competition. My own current favourites for the Concerto are Stephen Kovacevich with the LPO and Sawallisch; and Brendel with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado (also available in Philips’s ‘Great Pianists of the 20th Century’ series), who seem to find exactly the right tone for all three movements. Misha Donat