Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor; Three Intermezzi, Op. 117

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor; Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
PERFORMER: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)City of Birmingham SO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56583 2
There’s a slick detachment about Leif Ove Andsnes’s playing which undermines this expressively impoverished account of the Brahms D minor Concerto. Always in command of the work’s epic utterances, Andsnes shows far less regard for its introspection and vulnerability. Rattle and the CBSO prepare the ground majestically enough during the orchestral exposition, but Andsnes’s unadorned manner throughout the opening Maestoso movement leaves far too much unsaid about the torrential issues debated here. Pollini (whose DG Galleria reissue is still excellent value), Brendel and, especially, Kovacevich all probe deeper into the tormented psychological undertow of what was, after all, both the young Brahms’s requiem for Robert Schumann and an expression of his repressed infatuation with Clara.

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It’s Kovacevich, too, who rekindles the confessional mood of the Adagio to moving effect, leaving Andsnes sounding competent, but hardly enraptured by comparison, though high praise goes to the excellent horn and wind soloists of the CBSO, as indeed it must to Rattle’s attentive direction throughout. Wolfgang Sawallisch secures cultured, memorably idiomatic playing from the LPO, ensuring that the Hungarian sonata-rondo finale never becomes predictably episodic. Kovacevich, however, is infinitely more subtle than Andsnes, exploring a greater range of keyboard sonorities, and finding a glorious sense of catharsis after the storm during the triumphant apotheosis. Both recordings offer generous fillers, Andsnes plays the three Intermezzi of Op. 117 with similar understatement (perhaps the music can stand it, but the Concerto needs far more emphatic treatment than it gets here), while on the benchmark, mezzo-soprano Ann Murray is bewitching in the two songs with viola obbligato, Op. 91, with violist Nobuko Imai joining Kovacevich. Michael Jameson