Brahms Piano Concerto No.2 and Lieder
Brahms's song of the dying girl ''Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer'' recalls with tender pathos the ghostly half-remembered outline of the theme of the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto. It is one of five songs that make up his Op. 105 Lieder and it is marvellous to have not only this song so sympathetically performed by Ann Murray and Stephen Kovacevich but the whole group. Three of the songs are decently represented on record—''Immer leiser'', the thrilling ''Auf dem Kirchhofe'' and the soaringly lovely ''Wie Melodien zieht es mir''. But until now you would have sought in vain the group as a group. This is a pity when the third song, the folksy ''Klage'', makes so delightful a foil to its immediate neighbours, and when the final song, ''Verrat'', is such a splendid example of a ballad about homicide being treated by the mature Brahms with a subtlety we don't always find in some of his more bloodcurdlingly dramatic earlier settings.
So the formula has worked again. With Kovacevich's marvellous, Gramophone Award-winning disc of the D minor Concerto (10/92) it was the glorious late songs with viola and piano; now it is Op. 105, equally pertinent. Before that, in the Scherzo of the new recording of the B flat Concerto, the sonority and attack of the playing rekindles memories of that earlier disc. Brahms in D minor clearly works wonders for these musicians.
The rest of the performance is very fine; I don't know a generally better recent version. Yet that isn't to say the new disc has it all its own way. In the first place, there is still formidable competition from Stephen Kovacevich's own 1979 recording of the B flat Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO. The 1979 recording of the D minor Concerto is nowhere nearly as successful as the EMI remake; but at the price, and with such formidable makeweights as the Op. 10 Ballades and the Op. 76 Piano Pieces, the two-CD Philips reissue is highly competitive.
My impression—it was an early impression and it hasn't gone away with rehearing—is that at times the new performance of the B flat Concerto is cooler and more detached than the LSO/Davis version. This may, in part, be an impression fostered by the EMI recording which seems thinner-toned and marginally more distant than the Philips. (Always a risk with a pianist whose skills include the ability to play with an extraordinary inner fineness of timbre and dynamic.) But it is also the conducting. True, the B flat Concerto doesn't begin with the furnace fully stoked. That said, there's a touch of coolness about the orchestral playing in the all-important first-movement exposition and development (things get better in the re-exposition) that I don't hear from rival versions conducted by Jochum, Davis, Bohm and Szell.
In his interview with RW (on page 14), Stephen Kovacevich talks about the Davis version being ''too direct in places''. Perhaps he was talking about his own playing. (I don't personally find it so; as here, it is infinitely fine and varied.) The fact is, though, Sawallisch produces a less full-bodied, less emotionally weighty reading of the orchestral part.
The slow movement is now noticeably quicker. Since Brahms marks it Andante and since Kovacevich's playing has an even more musing feel to it, you could judge this an advantage. In practice, though, the piu adagio now sounds relatively anaemic, with the recording further disadvantaging the piano. Backhaus is as quick here, but paints with a much fuller brush; the others—Gilels, Serkin, Kovacevich with Davis—are all slower and more intense.
The finale is also quicker by a hair's breadth; but this can tip the scales between success and failure. Kovacevich again plays it with great buoyancy, brilliance and charm. It is playing after the manner of Solomon; and it just about works, despite Sawallisch pushing Brahms's Allegretto marking to its limit. Better still are those performances (all, it seems, from a bygone age such as Curzon with Knappertsbusch, Anda with Fricsay: 7/58 and 6/61, both deleted) which catch the movement's undertow of Austro-Hungarian melancholy. Serkin has it, with Szell conducting; Backhaus understands it from the Viennese perspective. (His ripely satisfying 1967 Decca recording is a document of vast historical importance.) Jochum, with Gilels, and Davis with Kovacevich underplay the Hungarian slant but they bring to the music a leisure and warmth that validate it as the surprising yet apt conclusion to this glorious work.'