BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1/Lieder op.91
Stephen Kovacevich's new EMI recording of Brahms's D minor Piano Concerto with the LPO under Wolfgang Sawallisch strikes me as being an altogether exceptional account of this leonine, beautiful, but often elusive work. It is one of those profoundly musical performances, thought out in a myriad small details, that at the same time flows freely and spontaneously from the minds and imaginations of musicians for whom the work is no longer a thing to be mastered but an experience to be wonderingly relived.
I should add that the disc also offers the most imaginative and raptly performed fill-ups I ever recall hearing on a Brahms concerto record. The concerto over, Kovacevich is joined by mezzo-soprano Ann Murray and viola player Nobuko Imai for two of Brahms's greatest songs: his setting of Ruckert's beautiful eventide poem Gestillte Sehnsucht and the sublime Geistliches Wiegenlied, a lullaby to the Christ child that bleakly foreshadows the agony that is to come. How wonderfully this song casts its shadow back over the concerto, making us ponder afresh the spiritual meaning of its great slow movement.
As for that slow movement, I can't remember it being more sensitively played or recorded than it is here. Famous versions by Curzon (Decca) and Gilels (DG) may match it but they don't surpass it. Kovacevich performs the music with astonishing fine-toned inwardness—the playing fabulously under-pinned by the LPO's awed and extraordinarily hushed accompaniment—yet the great climax is as grand and unaffectedly sincere as it always was in Serkin's recordings.
Kovacevich's 1981 Philips version of the D minor Concerto with Davis and the LSO, now reissued at bargain price by Pickwick, was always a write-off because of the astonishingly dull and muzzy sound. (Something that digital remastering does nothing to improve.) Happily, the B flat Concerto from the same period has excellent sound; and there, once again, you can relish Kovacevich's wonderfully inward playing of a great Brahms slow movement. The rest of the B flat Concerto in the Pickwick recording is decisively played, though there is obviously a case for waiting to see if the promised EMI remake is even more inspired.
What is so interesting about the new account of the D minor Concerto is the way all Kovacevich's virtues come into creative balance. Where in the Pickwick account of the B flat Concerto he occasionally overreaches himself—parts of the first movement are decidedly iron-clad—here in the new account of the D minor the cladding is strictly (and thrillingly) confined to the great trilled octaves and a handful of bravura outbursts. For the rest, apart from a slightly mannered treatment of the piano's big solo statement in the first movement, the performance moves with astonishing freedom between extremes of action and introspection. Typically, the finale has tremendous drive but is also remarkable for the sudden pools of quiet, for the skittishness of the woodwinds and the piano's charmed response. Indeed, it is the variousness of this performance within a finely sustained whole that sets it apart from the towering but in some ways more monolithic accounts by Serkin (CBS), Arrau (Philips), and the Szell-led Curzon (Decca).
Sawallisch's exposition of the difficult orchestral part is masterly, the LPO playing wonderfully ripe and dark-toned. The opening, sonically speaking, beds down superbly; yet at the same time Sawallisch is always the master of discreet forward motion. I have already mentioned the wonderful orchestral pianissimos in the slow movement. In fact, the whole sound-picture has been beautifully judged by the engineers. In particular, I like the way the piano has been placed at one with the orchestra, not as a posturing antagonist but as primus inter pares in an altogether more mature musical debate.
Here, indeed, is that rare thing, a modern digital recording that has all the virtues of the best kind of old LPs: warmth, clarity and finely judged balances. But, then, when you are confronted by a truly great performance 'sound', 'balance', and so on tend to take care of themselves. They are at the heart of the music-making, not imposed from without.'