Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Philips Virtuoso
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich (piano)LSO/Colin Davis
CATALOGUE NO: 442 110-2 ADD/DDD Reissue (1979)
The Hungarian pianist Jeno Jandó, one of the workhorses of the Naxos stable, shows himself to be a true thoroughbred here. He can occasionally seem a little on the diffident side, as when he hurries through the cadenza of the slow movement. But he has the technical command for Brahms’s fistfuls of figuration, and considerable musical intelligence: the apparently staid speed he sets in the finale justifies itself as the movement unfolds with unusual clarity and continuity. The excellent recording gives due prominence to the first-rate orchestral support. And it was an inspired idea to partner the Concerto, in many ways a requiem for Schumann, with Schumann’s own last work for piano and orchestra, dedicated to Brahms – a rarity well worth a hearing. a rarity well worth a hearing.

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As if to counter the threat of this new budget issue, Philips has reissued Stephen Kovacevich’s 1979 recording of the concerto, formerly available in a Duo set with No. 2, in the budget-price Virtuoso series. The piano sound is close and hard, the orchestra too distant; and after a strong start Davis slackens the tension too soon. But Kovacevich is tremendous, full of youthful poetry and fire — as also in the generous fill-up of solo music from earlier in Brahms’s career.

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By unusually unanimous consent, the benchmark for the concerto is currently set by Kovacevich’s older self: his 1991 recording, with Sawallisch’s steady hand on the orchestral tiller, combines the technical mastery of the earlier recording with mature poise and understanding. But that is at full price. At the opposite end of the price scale, the Kovacevich reissue is recommendable for its youthful urgency and flair; the Jando for thoughtful playing, an imaginative coupling, and fine sound. Anthony Burton