BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 1. 4 Ballades
In a concerto that gives a fair share of the heavy lifting to the orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony, under Daniel Harding’s expert baton, distinguish themselves. The wind band, plangent and exquisitely blended, floats effortlessly above a string choir of almost embarrassing luxuriousness. This is an ensemble that can speak audibly in the merest whisper. They are ever sensitive to their soloist, Paul Lewis, heard here in his first recording of Brahms.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a pianist who has laboured so fruitfully in Schubert’s field, Lewis is pervasively lyrical in the D minor Concerto. The chordal edifice of the second theme, for instance, is imbued with a melting legato that rises and falls with the contours of fine singing. The beauty of Lewis’s sound is evident throughout, but especially at the transition into the development, where the piano’s protesting cascade of octaves rings like chiming bells. As the first movement winds down before the final sprint to the finish, Lewis veils his sound and stretches the tempo to create a grippingly suspenseful aura of anticipation.
Following the first movement’s Sturm und Drang, the Adagio unfolds with unadorned simplicity. Nothing here of the tragic utterance, excruciating suspensions or emotional catharsis in Schnabel’s 1938 account with Szell and the LPO. The affective weight is instead shifted to the Rondo, which Lewis embarks upon with jaunty folksiness. Full of contrasts, the finale exudes a youthful vigour and strength that appropriately evokes the heroic.
In the Four Ballades, Op 10, Lewis creates scintillating textures of stunning clarity, everywhere seeking to highlight Brahms’s penchant for polyphony and subtle voicing. He’s not big on breathing pauses, however, preferring to indicate phrases with a fresh energy pulse within the continuous sound sustained by pedal or fingers. Lewis lovingly lingers over details, discovering interesting effects of light and shadow seldom encountered in these pieces. The strategy’s downside is that the Ballades’ modest structures seem freighted with affective content that stretches their load-bearing capacity to the limit.
For a Brahms D minor Concerto of manifold beauties that nonetheless remains safely within the bounds of received wisdom, this account could scarcely be bettered. If, on the other hand, you prefer a reconsideration of the score from the ground up, resulting in a naked, no-holds-barred account, rich with details that never impede the inexorable momentum, then the 2013 Hough/Wigglesworth collaboration is your choice.